I said the new film is about the war with Spain, but that's not entirely true. The film is "about" several things, and that's its problem. Where the 1998 movie, also directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett, painted a compelling portrait while also telling a riveting narrative, the sequel simply takes a chunk out of Elizabeth's life and says, "Here's what happened during these years," without bothering to shape it into a story.
It's about her friendship with Sir Walter Raleigh; about the beef with Spain; about the Catholic/Protestant division; about her desire to be a fulfilled, happy woman despite also being the queen and thus confined in so many ways. But it doesn't focus enough on any of those things to fairly say that it's what the film is "about."
And so this good-looking but dull film floats listlessly from one thing to another, with only a few blessed consistencies to keep us involved. One is Blanchett's characteristically impeccable performance as the queen, a woman capable of being royal and splendid during state dinners, capricious and angry in the face of betrayal, and shrewd in matters of war and politics. Blanchett's approach is to play Elizabeth as a woman first, queen second. Even with her outlandish costumes and pancake makeup giving her an air of untouchable regality, Blanchett's Elizabeth remains recognizably human in her imperfections.
She's joined this time around by Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh, the dashing, chivalrous New World explorer who is devoted to Elizabeth both as his sovereign and as the object of his affection. Elizabeth likes that he speaks to her honestly, and she's envious of the freedom he has to jaunt around the world. Yet a full-blown romance is not in the cards, and deep down they both know it. Owen is a perfect choice for the character, very nicely balancing Raleigh's political and personal loyalty with his manly frustration over Elizabeth's mercurial behavior.
Geoffrey Rush is the only lead besides Blanchett to return from the first film, reprising his role as the queen's trusted adviser Walsingham. Once again, Walsingham's machinations are positively Karl Rovian, the type of snake in the grass you're glad to have on your side but wouldn't want to be in opposition to. His role is expanded somewhat this time -- we actually meet his family -- yet somehow he's not as vivid a character as he was in the first film. This time, he's merely a function of the plot.
One of the other consistencies is Remi Adefarasin's breathtaking cinematography. Oscar-nominated for the first "Elizabeth," he returns to the vast, echoey palace halls and finds more stunning shots of richly detailed sets and costumes.
The trouble, I suspect, is in the screenplay. Written by Michael Hirst (the first "Elizabeth") and William Nicholson ("Gladiator"), it is less a study of Elizabeth's character and more a recitation of the things that occurred during the middle years of her reign. It's not cohesive -- nor, for that matter, is it much of a stickler for historical accuracy. That's fine if you're only using history as the backdrop for an interesting story, but if the history is the story, then shouldn't you adhere to it?