Will you leave your kingdom to a heretic?" That was the question posed to a dying Queen Mary in 1998's Elizabeth. Director Shekhar Kapur's grim and dingy film can now be viewed in retrospect as the origin story of a superhero: the Armored Virgin Queen, faster than a speeding lead pellet, more powerful than a Spanish Armada, able to leap the Tower of London in a single bound. But fear not: Even if you recall little of your history texts or the film nominated for a fistful of Oscars, Elizabeth: The Golden Age demands only your loyalty to highbrow camp masquerading as a soapy history lesson.
Kapur revisits Elizabeth, once more played by Cate Blanchett beneath towering wigs and a deathly pale visage, some 30 years after her coronation. England is on the brink of war with Spain's King Philip II (Jordi Molla), who wants England reclaimed as a Catholic stronghold under the rule of Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). As though any of that matters: The audience should have a very hard time taking too seriously a film in which Clive Owen, as Sir Walter Raleigh dressed in baggy pantaloons, dangles like a romance-novel cover boy from a ship's mast while the ocean laps him like a faithful hound.
The original was no less a fanciful soap opera — Dynasty in Renaissance Fair drag. But the sequel is considerably more garish and voluble. If Elizabeth was BBC stuff writ large, a melodramatic history lesson, its successor is more like an Indian import. You expect these people to break into song or skip into a dance routine every five minutes.
Kapur and his screenwriter — Michael Hirst again, here abetted by Gladiator scribe William Nicholson — commingle accepted fact, acknowledged fiction and wild-ass myth until their script is little more than a Fractured Fairy Tale. The foundation of the story is more or less accurate: By the 1580s, Elizabeth had settled into her role as the country's Protestant ruler, much to the chagrin of her former brother-in-law Philip, who wanted the country returned to its Catholic ways. Plots were hatched and conspiracies conceived to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, though in the end Mary denied any wrongdoing just before her head was chopped off.
While that was going on, Sir Walter was hanging out with the queen, who had taken a shine to the rogue explorer and poet. Only Raleigh had eyes, and baggy pants, for Elizabeth's favorite lady-in-waiting, Bess (played here by Abbie Cornish), with whom Raleigh would have a child — which made the queen mad enough to send Raleigh to the Tower of London for a while, till she freed him to do more pillaging of Spanish ships.
Kapur and his writers have taken all that "truth," such as it's been interpreted by historians over the years, and dumped it on its ass. Raleigh gets sprung from the tower not to do the queen's dirty work, but to save the entire damned country. (Sorry, Lord High Admiral Charles Howard.) This Elizabeth acts like a flirty little teenybopper surrounded by giggling courtesans as she ponders the touch of the rakish hunk. The filmmakers even include the long-ago-dispelled story that Sir Walter once draped his cape over a puddle of mud, lest the queen sully her slippers.
This will be rightfully damned as ludicrous nonsense, fluff puffed into "substance" by a filmmaker who has found a franchise in a legend, while Blanchett, Owens, and Geoffrey Rush (who returns as Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen's right-hand man) play it so straight that you're tempted to laugh out loud at every other scene — this is really Rocky Horror Picture Show territory. But, really, you must do the time warp again.