Elizabeth: the Golden Age was presumably better than Children in Need, but nonetheless disappointing. The acting was superb, particularly Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) and Samantha Morton (Mary Queen of Scots). The first half was atmospheric, beautiful and involving, as Elizabeth fends off various suitors and Philip of Spain and Mary Q of S plot to remove her. But the second half is, well, weedy. The plot disintegrates into Elizabeth’s mooning over Clive Owen’s Walter Raleigh — a handsome rake indeed, but it doesn’t work to try to turn him into Johnny Depp/Captain Jack Sparrow and at the same time have him impregnate and feel obliged to marry a lady in waiting — a predictable event but not carried out with much enthusiasm on Clive’s part — he is much more convincing when he talks about the joys of sailing off to America. I don’t understand why the director and writer decided to focus on the love triangle aspects (boring and hackneyed) and skip over the aftermath of the failed conspiracy and barely feature the dramatic story of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Francis Drake hardly figures at all: he has a couple of late scenes in a ship’s cabin with map on table, saying "what shall we do, Walter?", while Clive Owen’s Raleigh is the hero of the hour, single-handedly directing a fireship into the advancing CG Spanish fleet (special effects worse than an episode of Dr Who) and hence repelling the invaders. Meanwhile, on shore, Elizabeth gets on a white horse and does an Aragorn-imitation speech instead of the (excellent) real thing.
Far from being a pale adjunct to Raleigh, Francis Drake was another bearded pirate much favoured by Elizabeth, who was only too pleased when these two gentlemen (and others) plundered Spanish trading ships or colonies and bought her the spoils. After the events shown in the film, Drake was the first Englishman to sail round the world; on his return the queen knighted him on his ship The Golden Hind. He was in charge of the navy at the time of the Spanish threat (Raleigh was, as the film shows, imprisoned in the Tower at the time, and it is possible that, as the film portrays, the reason was because Elizabeth was annoyed that he had married). Drake famously refused to do anything about the Armada until he had finished his game of bowls in Plymouth. When he was ready, he sent eight fireboats into the Spanish fleet which was anchored off Calais. This caused them to scatter and, aided by a convenient storm, they were easily attacked by the much smaller English ships. Spain lost seventy ships and England none: Elizabeth became a legend in her own time in this amazing triumph over the odds.
So why the film couldn’t have featured some of this instead of shots of Clive Owen and a white horse swimming in a tank, I don’t know. Yes, Clive is suitably bearded — though not quite as luxuriously as Sir Walter’s portraits — but just think, we could have had two pirates instead of one, two beards (in the movie, Francis is clean shaven! The horror!), lots more action — including the game of bowls, I was looking forward to that — and far fewer shots of rustling petticoats and yearning looks across the throne room.
(I wrote about Francis Drake off the top of my head, but here is one place where you can read more, and see the beard.)