Woodrow Wilson famously compared Birth Of A Nation to history written in lightning. Elizabeth: The Golden Age plays like history written in bits left over from old perfume commercials. Images flash by without conveying any meaning, and there's a pervasive sense that the film is selling something destined to evaporate quickly in the open air.
A sequel to 1998's Elizabeth, The Golden Age picks up some years after its predecessor, which saw Cate Blanchett's Queen Elizabeth I through her tumultuous early years on the throne. Though shallow, Elizabeth at least had a point of view, borrowing a vision of royalty-as-well-heeled-thugs from Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan The Terrible films and presenting the flowering of the English Renaissance as a kind of high-gloss gangster story. Blanchett brought some pathos to the role that made her a star, undergoing a transformation that left Elizabeth as an icon to a nation, but only after she burned away much of what made her human.
Though Blanchett and director Shekhar Kapur both return, they fail to bring out the best in each other. With a lot of ground to cover—the execution of Mary Queen Of Scots (played with a pout by Samantha Morton) and the Anglo-Spanish War all play major parts—the film chooses to rush from point to point, propelled by an obnoxious score by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman, two composers who forget the meaning of the word "decrescendo." All that loud busywork leaves the film little time to think about Elizabeth. Blanchett alternates between dispensing bon mots and sulking over the impossibility of her infatuation with Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, looking and acting like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel). Even Geoffrey Rush, who played spymaster Francis Walsingham as history's badass supreme the first time around, is left with little to do. So instead of history and drama, we get images, many of them striking but none of them memorable, and noise that deafens until no sense can escape. The events beg for Shakespearean gravity, but the only tragedy here is that so little could be made of so much.