‘Elizabeth’ offers golden acting, but little else

The film and television industries devote a generous amount of airtime indulging themselves (and their viewers) in the lives of British royalty. With the release of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” director Shekhar Kapur’s follow-up to 1998’s “Elizabeth,” viewers invariably ask, what is there left to learn?

While the plot of the film is better left to the history books, it is clear that, like its predecessor, “The Golden Age” is a character study of the titular queen and is well worth the price of admission. Cate Blanchett reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth I with a tour de force performance, compelling the audience to share in her doubt, anger and longing.

Nine years ago, “Elizabeth” left off with the monarch proclaiming herself the Virgin Queen, married only to England. Although this was meant to liberate her from the burden of being a female ruler, “The Golden Age” quickly notes that freedom is far from the queen’s grasp.

Elizabeth notably restricts herself in the arena of love, illustrated by the appearance of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (played by Clive Owen). While this subplot only serves to flaunt Owen’s dashing machismo, it does allow the viewer to delve into Elizabeth’s loneliness as a Virgin Queen – and as a queen in general. Prone to both temper tantrums and moments of reflective isolation, Blanchett commands the screen and encourages the viewer to understand, rather than pity, her character.

In addition to Elizabeth’s struggles as a woman, she faces many limitations as a leader. As an unmarried ruler, she confronts pressures to produce an heir, which leads to many rounds of dinner dates with other reputable monarchs. As a Protestant, she meets imminent threats from the Roman Catholic Church, Catholic Spain and the supporters of her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton).

Mary’s scheme to overthrow Elizabeth is the strongest section of the film, as it boasts the darkness and suspense that made the first movie so great.

To prevent the Catholic restoration of power, advisor and spy Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) returns as a familiar face from the first film. Despite little screen time, the omniscient Walsingham is perhaps the most complex character in the movie. He is also arguably the most evil, but gains the audience’s support because he is on the side of the protagonist.

This internal conflict forces the audience to evaluate the film on a higher level, especially in terms of power and politics. It seems hypocritical for principled Elizabeth to allow Walsingham to protect Queen and country in his dubious ways – but what other option is there?

Eventually, the focus of the film moves to the Spanish Armada, as Spain finally declares war on England and the two countries enter into what was the most embarrassing Spanish naval defeat in history. Equally embarrassing, however, are the shoddy computer-generated images of the fleets and the fighting. It feels more suited to a fantasy picture than an epic drama.

Due to structural flaws, these three occasionally interwoven plotlines never fully mesh, leaving the viewer wondering whether the subject matter would be better suited for a cable miniseries. Unfortunately, Helen Mirren and HBO got there first with “Elizabeth I” (2005), which was able to take two not entirely related stories and combine them using the proper medium.

A full appreciation of “Golden Age” requires an open mind and a focus on Blanchett; however, there is no shame in wavering a bit during Owen’s close-ups. Don’t pay too much attention to the story, as it distracts from Blanchett’s performance and analysis of Elizabeth’s character.

The title of the film is itself distracting, as “The Golden Age” is not and should not be the focus. It truly is “Elizabeth” Part Two: an in-depth look at a beacon of strength, vulnerability and undoubtedly Oscar-worthy acting.