F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that there are no second acts in American lives. If only the same could be said about Shekhar Kapur's 1998 "Elizabeth." That striking movie reveled in juicy palace intrigue and established Cate Blanchett as a major star.
Now comes the limping, patched-together successor, hopefully titled "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." All ruffs and gowns and hairdos -- gorgeous, to be sure this sumptuous pageant cannot conceal its paltry grasp of narrative and characterization, in spite of an overstuffed plot rife with heartbreak and derring-do.
At first blush, all the stars seem auspiciously aligned for a few hours of outsized emotion, lush locations redolent of Ye Olde England, and that bold, bracing disregard of the historical record so characteristic of high-gloss costume drama on the big screen. Kapur, who served ably as ringmaster for "Elizabeth," is back, along with his star. Geoffrey Rush, too, has returned to the role of the Virgin Queen's wily retainer. And it doesn't hurt that one of the reigning hunks of the decade, Clive Owen, has been added to the mix as Walter Raleigh, that supreme adventurer who, with his coat-on-the-puddle routine, strikes the monarch's fancy as just the kind of bad boy to liven up those long evenings behind palace walls.
Intrigues of the heart, however, share the spotlight in this film's unwieldy plot with weighty matters of state. Elizabeth's cousin and contender for the throne, Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), has been locked up, but still manages to conspire with Philip II of Spain (a seething Jordi Mollà), Elizabeth's former brother-in-law. Portrayed here as a fire-breathing Catholic fanatic, Philip has dispatched a band of crusaders to England and ordered the ships that will become the Armada into round-the-clock production.
And this is the moment Elizabeth chooses to fall hard for a well-spoken pirate of doubtful pedigree. What rotten royal luck.
With all this going on, we need a script that puts the human relationships at the story's heart into sharp focus, something that caters to our thirst for period pomp without burying the characters under a cascade of factoids lifted from the encyclopedia. Since we're dealing with one of the great sagas of family dysfunction, something striking a happy medium between the King James Bible and "The Sopranos" might have done the trick.
What we get, sadly, is twaddle that might strike even the editors of romance novels as not being quite up to standard. "In some other world, in some other time, could you have loved me?" Elizabeth pines. Not to be outdone in triteness, Raleigh counters with lines such as, "Why be afraid of tomorrow, when today is all we have?" The real Raleigh, who counted among his accomplishments skilled, startlingly tough-minded lyric poetry, must be spitting fire somewhere.
With a cast like this, there are bound to be bright spots, and the movie has a lot of fun early on in displaying Elizabeth's famous habit of parlaying her ostensible virginity into diplomatic power. Dangling the prospect of her marriage into now this, now that royal house, she toys with a beardless Austrian prince come a-calling, letting him stumble along in broken English for a while, before finally dismissing him with a volley of the swiftest, sharpest German and a maternal pat on the hand.
But such ploys make it impossible for her to commit. When she suspects the impatient Raleigh of illicit canoodling with a comely lady-in-waiting (Abbie Cornish), she goes a little bats. But the film is too busy juggling assorted plot lines to give us much insight into her turmoil, so her retributive pranks, which might have been chilling, come off as infantile acting-out, just another head of state behaving badly.
Blanchett does her best to make up for these deficiencies when, having doffed her fabulous wigs, she stares into a boudoir mirror at her spiky, close-cropped hair, murmuring sour nothings to herself. Again, the script lets her down. Something about getting old, being lonely. The usual.
The Catholic menace fended off, the movie ends with a burst of nonsense about England's glorious decades to come. We don't hear, of course, that Elizabeth's successor had Raleigh's head cut off at the behest of, would you believe, the Spanish throne. That, it would seem, is too interesting. "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" doesn't want history to distract from the costumes. (PG-13) 114 min. S