One reviewer referred to the movie as "historical fiction" loosely based on the actual facts. This is certainly true: among the historical inaccuracies are:
Phillip of Spain did not use the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, as a causus belli for launching the Spanish Armada, or, if so, he was a dilatory avenger, since Mary was beheaded February 8, 1587, and the Armada did not set out until May 28, 1588 instead of the events being contemporaneous as the film implies.
The English were not outnumbered: they had two hundred ships plus Dutch allies, to the Spanish 130.
The English lost no ships in the battle of Gravelines.
The fireship attack destroyed no Spanish ships, but did cause the Spanish fleet to scatter, after which they were defeated in detail by the faster and more maneuverable English.
Walter Raleigh was not at sea at that time: he was in charge of costal defenses as Vice-Admiral of Devon.
Elizabeth wore a steel breastplate during her visit to the troops at Tilbury: the Joan of Arc-like suit of full plate Blanchett wears in the film is fantasy (although beautiful--).
(Thanks to my friend Robert Horne a.k.a. "Admiral Lord Howard of Effingham" for some of these facts.)
All that being said, we still enjoyed the movie (although it would have been fun to have gone with some of our reinactor friends to hear the groaning--).
I have to say I think the title curious, since from Elizabeth's point of view, the times must have been anything but golden. Her soverignty was beset with intrigues within and without, the swarm of opprtunitists hovering around the Queen of Scots not the least of them, and England was engaged in an undeclared war with Spain, the most powerful Empire on Earth at the time, over English assistance to Protestant rebels in the Low Countries and English sea dogs' depredations against Spain's interests in the New World, including the capture of treasure ships.
While her loyal spymaster, Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, also reprising his role from the first film), fends off treachery including getting the goods on the Queen of Scots (who is shown as an active conspirator against Elizabeth, a point of historical debate), the one real bright spot in Elizabeth's life is her flirtation with Sir Walter Raleigh, played with handsome heroicism by Clive Owen. A few more inaccuracies: Raleigh was knighted in 1585, but did not become Captain of the Guard until 1592. At least he was actually at court during the period of the movie. Blanchett and Owen work well together playing out the tense dynamics of their unconsummated relationship. Elizabeth clearly wants Raleigh, but can't have him, since a liasion with an English knight would do nothing to stabilize political pressures at home or abroad, as well as putting an end to the juggling game she played with her royal foreign suitors. However, she can't bring herself to be rid of him either, and ties him down with duties in England when he would rather be away in Virginia. (A genuine historical fact: Elizabeth did actually keep Raliegh's ships in port on hand to deal with the impending Spanish invasion, which may have contributed to the loss of the Roanoake colony.) This practically pushes Raleigh into the arms of Elizabeth's waiting woman, the young Eizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). Raleigh did marry Throckmorton secretly, and Elizabeth's rage and spite shown in the film may be on point, since he was imprisoned, and his wife dismissed from court. (However, these things happened in 1592, and Raleigh was released from prison for reasons unrelated to the Armada.)
Of course, the climax of the film is the Gravelines battle, and, inaccurate as it may have been, was excitingly shot and Georgie remarked how much some of the scenes resembled historical paintings of the time--perhaps an indicator of the extent to which art triumphs over fact in the entire film.
The chief actors were well supported by the rest of the cast, including Samantha Morton as Mary, Queen of Scots, who bears a passing resemblance to the Queen's portrait, and Jordi Molla as Phillip II of Spain. This last, though a small role, is a striking one. Molla, one of spain's best known actors, plays the fanatical King as a creeping creature who shuns the sunlight, vampiric in his Spanish black. The effect is enhanced by his curious mincing bow-legged gait, which seems to imply that his leather hip boots are too stiff to permit bending of the knees.
The film is artistically beautiful. Elizabeth's armor and the composition of the battle scenes have been mentioned: in addition there were excellent choices of scene and setting. Interestingly, the elaboration of Elizabeth's wardrobe is actually toned down from reality, giving a cleaner line, while her collection of red wigs includes fantasias only possible with modern arts. (I thought Blanchett actually looked her best with simpler styles: she is more beautiful in her armor, with long hair straight and streaming, than in the most fanciful "Gloriana" gowns--but the elaborate coiffures are part of her domestic defensive armament.)
Good fun, as long as you turn your historical editor off.