Starring: Rhys Ifans, Sebastian Armesto, Edward Hogg, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Paolo De Vita, Trystan Gravelle, Rafe Spall, and Derek Jacobi
Director: Roland Emmerich
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Edward, the Earl of Oxford (Ifans), is a brilliant and obsessive writer and poet, who is forced to keep his art secret due to circumstances of birth and the machinations of power-broker William Cecil (Thewlis). But his love of theater becomes overwhelming, and he seeks out a talented but struggling playwright, Ben Johnson (Armesto) to serve as his "beard." The play goes awry when Johnson hesitates and hack actor and all-around low-life Will Shakespeare (Spall) steps in and steals the credit. As Oxford turns from play-writing to politics in order to support his friends and proteges, the Earls of Essex and Southhampton (Reid and Samuel), playwrights and nobles alike are swept up in deadly and hidden machinations over who will take the throne of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth I (Redgrave).
The film's tagline and ad campaign drew me in. "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?" is an intriguing question for one such as myself who has enjoyed many different stagings of his plays over the years, and who loves the running gag in "Houseboat on the River Styx" about Shakespeare not being the author of his plays. However, this is ultimately a very small part of the film, which is primarily concerned with a chain of events that leads to the events known as the Essex Rebellion and behind-the-scenes machinations of the Cecils, a wealthy family of commoners. And, of course, the brilliance of Oxford as a writer.
The film, in fact, makes such a big deal out of how brilliant Oxford is that is ends up undermining its own conspiracy theory about Shakespeare taking credit for his work. According to the story, a number of plays attributed to Shakespeare were written by Oxford when he was just a boy and performed at Queen Elizabeth's court. In fact, the plays were seen by so many people that it strains credibility that when they start showing up in theaters and later performed at Elizabeth's court again that no-one remembers them from years before. In other words, within the universe of the film, Oxford's secret identity as a playwright is one of the worst kept secrets in all of England.
The credibility of the film is further undermined by glaring historical inaccuracies, ones that even non-history buffs or non-Shakespeare scholars will pick up on, with the most glaring of these being "Macbeth" presented as written and performed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth when it was wasn't written until King James was on the throne.
Now, the screenwriter has stated in interviews that he made those errors intentionally as a homage to Shakespeare... and they can further be excused by the fact that the film is presented within a Shakespeare-like framework with a presenter taking to the stage before and after the main events of the film, thus clearly framing it as a work of fiction where shadows may or may not offend. Nonetheless, if you're going to write a movie presenting the thesis that the greatest creative force to ever work in the English language wasn't who history records him to be--no matter how tangential that ultimately ends up being to the thrust of your story--it behooves you to actually present a little historical accuracy as far as his works go. Especially when in the case of Macbeth, there's no reason for the discordant note to be struck.
Aside from the glaring historical inaccuracies, this is an accomplished film. It is well-acted, beautifully shot, and expertly paced. The story structure is unnecessarily convoluted--as it's got a framing sequence within the framing sequence of the narrator on stage in a theater, and then adds frequent flashbacks within the main story just to add a possibility of confusing the audience--but the film is long enough that viewers get acclimated to the jumps back and forth after the first couple of times, so it turns out to be less or a drawback than it seems at first. The way character traits were conveyed through props and costuming was also impressive, with the fact that Earl of Oxfords fingers were always stained with ink while Shakespeare's were always perfectly clean was a particularly nice touch.
This is not a film for everyone; some will find it way too talky, and I suspect it might be painful to sit through if you've put any real time and effort into Shakespeare scholarship (given the inaccuracies a yahoo like me could spot without even trying), but if you're a regular viewer of "Masterpiece Theater," I suspect it might be right up your ally.
I'm still going to stick with the Shakespeare authorship theories put forth by John Kendrick Bangs, however.
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