Yet in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, director Shekhar Kapur squanders the potential for suggestive parallels -- and even for historical accuracy -- in his over-romanticized, treatment of personal and political events in the life of Elizabeth I in the years leading up to the attack of the Spanish Armada.
In the 1580s, Spanish Catholics were to the English what godless Communists were to 1950s Americans: powerful, scary, bent on world domination, and absolutely in the wrong. But Spain's gimpy-legged Philip II had enough gold to build himself a fleet of huge ships and a spy network that hoped to place the Catholic queen of Scots, Mary Stuart, on England's throne.
Cate Blanchett -- regal in bearing, flirtatious, racked by self-doubt, inspiring in her patriotism -- reprises all the qualities that made her so impressive in Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen in 1998. There's a scene in which Elizabeth, mesmerized, stares at Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) as he recounts what it's like to be months at sea and then finally catch a glimpse of a newfound land. The physical attraction between them intensifies as a truth becomes clear: As a woman and a queen, Elizabeth can only listen to stories about shores she will herself never see. Conquests, sexual and otherwise, are for others to make, not her. But Kapur is so intent on paralleling the personal and the political that he sensationalizes: The Armada is drawing near, Your Majesty! And the lady-in-waiting over there is taking liberties with Sir Walter's person!
In other scenes, Blanchett overplays the nervous coquette, needlessly heightening the love-triangle intrigue. And Elizabeth never stood alone atop an oceanside cliff wearing a diaphanous gown while a movie soundtrack swelled and Spanish warships burned just a short swim away.
Clive Owen plays the darkly handsome, stubble-bearded Raleigh with bad-boy heat, though a ridiculous Errol Flynn sequence during the climactic battle detracts from an otherwise solid performance. Samantha Morton isn't given much to do as the Queen of Scots other than uncover her shoulders so the executioner can chop off her head. Abbie Cornish, as Elizabeth's confidante Bess Throckmorton, is given far more opportunity to display flirtation and friendship.
It's fine to conflate historical events for a purpose, but Kapur pushes past credulity. People cover up for traitorous relatives, get themselves thrown out of court, lead naval fleets and die in ways that vary quite a bit from the historical record. And a parade of foreign suitor-monarchs and Raleigh's appearance at court (to create an oh-so-passionate love triangle along with the two Elizabeths, Tudor and Throckmorton) is crammed into a single evening.
If the Elizabethan storyline was good enough for Bette Davis and Glenda Jackson to have two gos at it each, then why not a third attempt by Blanchett? (There are rumors that she and Kapur may yet turn this into a trilogy, and there are another 15 years of Elizabeth's reign to cover.)
A woman (!) leading an underdog nation 400 years ago, maneuvering on the world's chessboard, relinquishing her chance at a loving husband and a child, instead choosing to parent an entire country -- Kapur didn't need to sex up the history, because it's sexy enough on its own. So if Elizabeth gets a few more people interested in Elizabethan history, fine. But Kapur wastes a good opportunity, settling for an exaggerated, version of history that must have been grittier, more intricate and more enlightening. (Rated PG-13)