In the closing scenes of 1998’s Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett’s Virgin Queen, having survived an assassination attempt and executed Mary, the ruler of Scotland, has vanished behind her wigs and white powder. She’s renounced her humanity to ascend as the symbol of England. It’s a lesson she relearns in Shekhar Kapur’s stylish sequel where Blanchett again perches a plumed wig on her head and sets about surviving the Spanish Inquisition, beheading a second Mary of Scots, and accepting—bitterly—that she helms a nation whose subjects prefer their kings randy and their queens chaste (as though doggy style tainted a lady’s authority).
It’s now 1585 and across the channel, the Catholic Spanish are furious at the Protestant queen’s Vatican-unsanctioned control of the throne. “That whore! That devil!” they spit as toddler Isabella, dressed in stiff netting, nods solemnly. King Phillip II (Jordi Molla) plots for Elizabeth’s half sister Mary Queen of Scots (a wounded and furious Samantha Morton) to usurp the crown. But Mary’s locked up in house arrest and her only hope of freedom is a knife across Elizabeth’s throat.
While her advisor Geoffrey Rush warns her to strike first against the conspirators, Elizabeth ain’t no GWB brand of ruler. “We will not punish them preemptively,” she insists, later adding, “May we have the wisdom not to fear shadows in the night,” as though gently rebuking Fox News devotees and scaremongers addicted to To Catch a Predator. Instead, she’d rather distract herself at court where she and her best friend Bess (Abby Cornish) strut in color-coordinated gowns and gawk at the wonders of the world paraded into her palace. There are zebras, snakes, the ancestors of Cirque de Soleil, and most heart-flutteringly, Walter “Not Yet a Sir” Raleigh (Clive Owen) who uses his oddities from the Americas as a flirtation device. Elizabeth isn’t much impressed with the potato (they nibble it raw), but she can’t resist the wink in Raleigh’s eye when he tells her the tobacco leaf is “stimulating.” And when the hunky explorer announces he named his colony Virginia in her honor, Blanchett’s blush says she’d rather call it Takemenowsville.
The first half of the film is a pedigreed romance, an excuse for Blanchett to bind herself in satin and channel Kate Hepburn. But this being Blanchett’s second turn at the role that won her her first Oscar nod, her grasp on the character gives dimension to the love triangle between her, Raleigh, and Bess, whose childish beauty is an apt foil for Elizabeth’s angularity. Her Elizabeth is cocky, fragile, and bemused; she’d blend in at a Manhattan martini bar. When she sighs that she’s tired of being in control, she sounds unnervingly close to Sarah Jessica Parker. Yet when Blanchett hides her awkwardness behind a smile and her fears behind a frown, we see her struggle to divorce her private emotions from her public persona. “I feel as though I’m always behind a pane of glass,” she confides to a visiting prince, as though she sees 400 years into the future when millions tuned in to watch her namesake Elizabeth II marry her son off on TV.
Michael Hirst and William Nicholson’s script is lucid to a fault. Where the first Elizabeth overindulged in shots of dimly recognizable bit players whispering in the shadows, here the plotting and direction are straightforward with no loss of complication and conflict. Kapur favors clear—not simplistic—strokes. His Spaniards dress in uniform black like pious vampires and as the Queen shakes out of her romantic stupor aghast that the Spanish Armada approacheth, the color drains out of her castle and her shadow stretches the length of the hallways. There’s a bit of nonsense when Elizabeth slips into a suit of armor to rally her troops, her long red hair waving wildly in the wind as though we hadn’t already seen her bald head a half-dozen times. (Does Beyonce’s hairdresser have a Delorean?) A metal breastplate and leggings only make explicit what underlies Blanchett’s strong performance; her real protective outerwear was her image of a immaculate ruler—a vision in facepaint, finery, and force—which she hid behind in public and clung to when alone.