(2011) Thriller (Columbia) Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Arnesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Derek Jacobi, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sam Reid, Paolo De Vita, Trystan Gravelle, Mark Rylance, Helen Baxendale. Directed by Roland Emmerich
The greatest writer in the history of the English language is William Shakespeare. There’s no argument on that point whatsoever. However, there are those who believe that Shakespeare, the son of an illiterate glassblower, never wrote the things he did and in fact couldn’t have.
There is a contingent of scholars, known as Oxfordians, who believe that Edward de Vere (Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford, was in fact the author of Shakespeare’s works. The movie takes up that cause, opining that de Vere, unable to publish his plays due to his father in law, William Cecil (Thewlis), a devout pilgrim and his wife Anne (Baxendale).
De Vere is aware that the Cecils – William and his conniving hunchbacked son Robert (Hogg) are plotting to put James, the King of Scotland on the throne when Elizabeth (Redgrave), who is aging, ill and without a will finally passes away. He believes that would be a catastrophe for the kingdom. He wants to sway the tide of public opinion in a different direction, and he notices that the wildly popular theatrical plays can do that. He enlists the young playwright Ben Johnson (Arnesto) to publish and produce de Vere’s plays under Johnson’s name.
However, things go a bit awry when Johnson, wishing to have a career of his own work, hesitates to take credit for his first produced play and an ambitious, drunken actor named Will Shakespeare (Spall) steps forward and takes credit. The die is cast therefore and court intrigue begins to swirl.
Shakespeare’s plays become enormously popular and the man, dumber than a rock but clever in a streetwise sense, extorts money from De Vere when he figures out who the true author of his plays are. In the meantime, De Vere supports the claim of the Earl of Essex (Reid) for the throne, a claim which is also supported by De Vere’s close friend the Earl of Southampton (Samuel) whose ties to De Vere are deeper than anyone supposes.
The Cecils have the aging Queen’s ear and despite her very plain affection for the Earl of Oxford, it appears she’s is going to let the Cecils seize the power in England and it will take a very bold plan and some very stirring words to turn things in the favor of the Earl of Oxford and his supporters.
Emmerich, better known for big budget apocalyptic films like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day has long had this on the back-burner as a vanity project. This is definitely a departure for him and one has to admire his willingness to move out of his comfort zone.
To his credit, his recreation of Elizabethan London on German soundstages is incredible, from the muddy streets laid with lumber so that the noblemen may walk about the city without muddying their boots, to the magnificent estates inhabited by nobles and courtiers to the intimate setting of the Globe Theater itself.
That said, the historical accuracy here is to put it kindly somewhat shaky which writer John Orloff admits, but rightly points out that Shakespeare himself was notorious for bending the facts of history to suit his dramatic needs. Some of the facts that have been bent will only outrage scholars but there is certainly some fudging in order to make the case for Oxford.
Nonetheless the entertainment value is up there. Ifans, known for playing kind of whacky and often stoned-out roles in his career plays a literal Renaissance man who manages to keep to his conviction of avoiding bloodshed and resolving things in a peaceable manner. He is opposed by forces that are both malevolent and devious, and he is intelligent enough to sidestep most of the pitfalls, although he in the end….well, we’ll let you find out for yourself.
The British cast here have some pretty solid pedigrees, including the Oscar-nominated Redgrave and Jacobi, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the time. Most of the rest of the cast are well known on the London stage or from television roles, although Thewlis will be familiar to Harry Potter fans.
Some might find the plot a bit murky, particularly in regards to the ins and outs of court intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I near the end of her reign. Still, while I disagree with Emmerich and Orloff’s conclusions vis a vis the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (as do most scholars) I did like the discussion raised here not to mention the authenticity of the setting.
REASONS TO GO: A fine recreation of Elizabethan England with some solid performances all around, particularly from Ifans.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes a goodly amount of historical liberties. Twists and turns of court politics might be confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of sexuality, not to mention a few adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redgrave and Richardson who play older and younger versions of Elizabeth are mother and daughter in real life.
HOME OR THEATER: I thought it appeared very snazzy on the big screen; Emmerich seems to thrive in the larger-than-life environment.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Rum Diary