In Spain, they're cutting down vast forests in order to build the Armada, with which they intend to impose that country's grim Catholic will on Protestant England. In a glum castle, Mary Queen of Scots schemes to replace her cousin Elizabeth on the English throne if, of course, she can avoid the death sentence everyone is urging the Virgin Queen to impose on her. In Whitehall, Walter Raleigh is spreading his coat over the mythical puddle so his sovereign will not dampen her dainty feet as she strolls toward her distinguished destiny. Meantime, spies and assassins scuttle through the corridors of power, the torture chambers are booked solid for the foreseeable future and Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, playing a woman 17 years her senior) allows herself to be smitten by Raleigh (the internationally cuddlesome Clive Owen).
Elizabeth: The Golden Age? Better, perhaps, to call this Elizabeth: The Frenzied Years especially since the film's director, Shekhar Kapur, suffers from an advanced case of restless camera syndrome. Tracking shots, twisting boom shots, placements that are either radically high or low they all betoken a director who doesn't trust his material. And why should he? The statecraft of 400 years ago is not the stuff of great movies all mutterings in the shadows about geopolitical issues that the screenwriters, William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, prefer not to go into. That leaves Kapur with the Elizabeth-Raleigh thing, which is, truth to tell, no more than a flirtation without a fruition. Blanchett and Owen do what they can with it she is alternately coy and bawdy; he is blunt, refreshingly lacking in courtly wiles and drawn to one of her ladies in waiting (the winsome Abbie Cornish) which is not very much.
But wait, it gets worse. As the computerized Armada heave into sight, Elizabeth, dolled up in Joan of Arc drag shining armor, waving a big sword takes it into her head to rally her troops, drawn up on the shore, impotently waiting for the naval engagement to begin. She is given a noble rallying speech to sing out her St. Crispin's Day moment but, putting this as gently as possible, Nicholson and Hirst are not exactly the Bard of Avon, and Kapur is not exactly Laurence Olivier when it comes to staging this emptily rhetorical, entirely fictional moment. The director not much better with the ensuing naval battle, which is more symbolically than realistically staged.
That's pretty much the way it goes with this movie. It's a faux epic swell costumes, historically authentic settings, a certain amount of bustle and skulking, but very little dramatically gripping activity. One has hopes, occasionally, for Geoffrey Rush's Walsingham, Elizabeth's supremely adept spymaster (and a historical character one would like to know more about), but he remains a shadowy figure. One would like, as well, to see Samantha Morton's Mary as a tragic, if misguided, figure. But she manages no more than a certain noble smugness when, at last, her head is placed on the block.
So it goes throughout Elizabeth. Wit might have animated it. Or authentic passion. Or a certain imperiousness in Blanchett's playing, a certain dangerousness in Owen's. But the movie wants to see them as more modern figures earnest, good-natured, embryonic democrats. Elizabeth, as a number of movies have proved over the decades, was a great historical figure but not a great dramatic one. The historical Queen undoubtedly had tolerant and democratic impulses of the kind that are imputed to her here. But she was also a canny, hidden and manipulative monarch, not given to broad, emotionally riveting gestures. I suppose you can commend Blanchett for playing her that way, even if it leads us to see her as more of a modern career woman sly and ironic at her best than she must actually have been. But there's something anti-emotional in a performance that mostly stands on ceremony until it falls into mannerism, taking an essentially (and literally) misguided movie with it.