'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' succeeds as an exceptionally lavish historical drama with impressive performances from Cate Blanchett, reprising her role as Elizabeth I, and Clive Owen, as dashing adventurer and love interest Sir Walter Raleigh. It is the sequel to the 1998 biopic of the 16th century monarch, which showed Elizabeth's rise to the throne and tumultuous early years.

'The Golden Age' picks up the story in 1585, as the Queen faces a threat from Spain's King Philip II (Molla) and his mighty Spanish Armada. He desires to dethrone the Protestant Queen and return England to Catholicism by installing her cousin Mary Queen of Scots to the throne. He is conspiring to assassinate the Queen with a Jesuit sect, led by Robert Reston, played by a chilling Rhys Ifans.

The Queen's trusted advisor Sir Francis Willingham (Rush) uncovers the plan to assassinate her through his intricate spy network. He unmasks traitors that he believes include her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, played by an austere but underused Samantha Morton. This, however, is discovered to be a ploy orchestrated by the Spanish to give them a reason to attack England. After Mary is executed for treachery, King Philip promptly does so, launching his fabled Armada on the Thames.

Her personal turmoil is also explored when Elizabeth falls for the roguish charms of Raleigh and embarks on a relationship that is inhibited by constraints of her office as he is a commoner.

His attentions are diverted by the comely lady-in-waiting, and favourite of the Queen, Bess (Cornish). When the Queen learns of their love affair she is furious and banishes them both. Her vulnerability and insecurity is juxtaposed by the regal control she displays in her ruling of the country.

Blanchett shines as the icy Queen, creating a character that is both larger than life and yet empathetically human. Her powdered regal features, succession of intricate wigs and increasingly elaborate dresses disguise her essential fragility which is portrayed excellently.

Director Shekhar Kapur's stunning and sumptuous production is complemented by some fabulous cinematography, spectacular sets and superb costumes, although the overblown, rousing musical score becomes increasingly tiresome as the film progresses. It seems to be a case of 'more is more', as it is a relentless assault on the senses both visually and sonically.

While the attention to historical detail is often sketchy, the sheer grandeur and scale of the production, coupled with the breathless pace of the film draws you into the political and personal intrigue of the Queen's life.

Sarah McIntyre