This is a beautiful movie… to look at. Structurally and narratively, it is a mess. This is a film that is suffocated under the weight of its own excess, almost as if the story itself were an excuse for its costumes and art direction. It is not a film wholly concerned with historical accuracy, but that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the shallowness of the story when coupled with such rich historical figures, portrayed by some of the best actors working today.
The main plotline of the film, which is a love story/love triangle between Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Bess, one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting, is entirely redundant and a waste of both Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen. The Queen being pressured to pick a suitor and make an alliance with one of Europe’s other kingdoms, as well as the Queen’s struggle to balance her public duty and her private desires for a man she cannot have for political and social reasons, are both issues that were explored in Elizabeth. The plotline is meant to show Elizabeth’s human side, the side with doubts and jealousies, but this is all ground that was covered in the previous film and not necessary for this one. The subplot of political intrigues, had it been explored more fully and properly, would have been more than enough to sustain the film. Instead we get brief glimpses of plots and counterplots in between Elizabeth and Raleigh exchanging googly eyes, or Elizabeth jealously watching Raleigh with Bess.
What we see of the political intriguing is good, especially the scenes involving Samantha Morton as Mary Queen of Scots. Morton is the standout here as a scapegoat betrayed by both sides in a “Holy War,” alternating between quiet anger at her imprisonment, and quiet acceptance of her fate. Blanchett and Owen are also good, but the story fails them by casting them as star crossed lovers. As for Geoffrey Rush, who returns as the Queen’s most trusted advisor, he’s good but has too little to do.
The climactic sea battle between the English and the Spanish armada is well done but, again, swells to excess. It ends operatically with the soundtrack booming victoriously as the waves sweep up over the English cliffs and Elizabeth watches the glow of the burning Spanish ships in the distance. But before we even get to that there’s scenes of a white horse (representing perhaps the spirit of the virgin Queen escaping the clutches of Spain and its inquisition) leaping from a Spanish ship into the sea, and a shot of Clive Owen standing on the side of a ship that makes him look like he’s posing for the cover of a romance novel. This is a film that could have been dialled down by about a hundred notches and still been a glorious and lush visual experience.
There are two kinds of sequels. There are ones like The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II which elaborate and build on the stories and characters of their predecessor, and there are those like The Two Jakes and The Evening Star which make you lament that actors you love are playing character you love in films that would be best forgotten. This is the latter, and it is unfortunate.