There’s a scene in ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ that shows the forces of Spain preparing for the invasion of England, working overtime dying robes Inquisition red. It’s an odd thing to focus on amid the grand mechanics of the Armada, but quite in keeping with a film that values costume above all else, neglecting both the niceties of history and the demands of drama.
Picking up a few decades after their 1998 collaboration ‘Elizabeth’ left off, star Cate Blanchett, director Shekhar Kapur and co-writer Michael Hirst (late of US TV’s ‘The Tudors’) give us a Virgin Queen comfortably established on the throne but facing Catholic conspiracy at home and abroad. (Cue Jordi Mollà’s creepy Philip II and Rhys Ifans’ post-‘Da Vinci Code’ demon cleric.) Meanwhile, Her Maj is swooning to tales of transatlantic derring-do from cocky Sir Walter Raleigh (a rather one-note Clive Owen) – as, awkwardly, is her closest attendant and friend, Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).
Making soap of statecraft, the film has plenty of juicy moments, but offers an inconsistent rather than complex view of Elizabeth: the magnetic Blanchett always convinces in imperious hauteur, but her lurches into jealous pique and flustered vulnerability don’t quite fit. (Samantha Morton’s captive Mary Stuart, prickling with pride and fear, almost steals the show.) Kapur has a fine eye for royal spectacle-making, swathing in rich textiles and ravenous pans the procession of the Royal Barge and the exotic ornaments of court; if it’s Tuesday, it must be zebras. The Armada set-pieces founder, however, and the sumptuous visuals begin to feel distracting, even absurd. Did she really wear a ruff in the bath?