Now fully entrenched in her reign over England, "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) has found herself weary from constant isolation and the burden of royalty. When Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) returns from the new world with treasures, Elizabeth is entranced by his stories and blinded by his honesty, leaving her with romantic feelings unbecoming of a queen. As Spanish forces grow and the choice is made to attack England, Elizabeth rises to the challenge, setting aside her demons and disappointments to take England into battle with their greatest foe.
It's been nine years since the release of "Elizabeth," and so much has changed. Star Cate Blanchett has stepped into her destined role as the preeminent actress of her generation, director Shekhar Kapur tossed away his industry goodwill with the lethargic "Four Feathers" remake, and the very genre of period royalty chess games has been brought up a few notches due to outstanding cable efforts. There's so much against "Golden Age," I can see why Kapur decided to blow up his sequel to deafening Wagnerian levels.
While surely not a complete departure from what began in 1998, "Golden Age" whisks the story away from youthful heartbreak and hardens it to an overwhelmingly stylistic brick. Kapur takes the pageantry of the original and turns it into a fine arts museum, with cinematography that feels more like dabs of paint on a canvas and a production design that beats epic drums and drips with details so great, a second viewing should be required just to stare awestruck at the backgrounds. "Elizabeth" was a more controlled creation, where "Golden Age" rides off the rails, taking the legend of Elizabeth to the next level of mythology. Frankly, the acceleration is bliss.
Returning to the role that made her a star, Blanchett is in full control, embracing a second shot at bringing this historical persona to life. William Nicholson's dialogue rolls off the actress's tongue like bullets and buried in impossible costumes, Blanchett is able to register Elizabeth's torment and lust, trying to remain accessible to those close to her, but using the spine-severing snap of her royalty when her feelings are trounced upon. Blanchett matches Kapur's scope note for note, but demands little moments of vanity or vulnerability to keep the performance grounded. It's an exquisite acting effort that grows to ivory spiritual levels when the Spanish invasion subplot rolls in.
However, the new film is distancing in ways "Elizabeth" avoided. Kapur is looking for larger-than-life arrangements of betrayal, heroism, and romantic entanglements, and continually mounts his picture with a ferocity you might find in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Scored with wall-of-sound detonation by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman, "Golden Age" recounts/invents Elizabeth's tussle with Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), the rise of the Catholic empire of Spain (led by a stalking Jordi Molla), and a love triangle between Elizabeth, Walter Raleigh, and the Queen's confidant, Elizabeth Throckmorton (Nicole Kidman look-alike, Abbie Cornish).
The sequel also furthers Elizabeth's relationship with adviser Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), explores her fatigue with suitors, and climaxes with a final stand of sorts, as Elizabeth not only has to defend her crown, but the very life and liberty that England stands for.
Kapur takes every thematic and emotional twitch seriously, and "Golden Age" embraces its sweep in a major way. I was enchanted by the breathlessness of this sequel and the way Kapur takes protracted historical data and snowballs it into a gorgeous flip-book, even molding the final battle into an Errol Flynn-style adventure. Whatever "Golden Age" lacks in delicacy and subtlety it more than makes for in ambiance and a thunderous appetite for drama and sensory overload.