Reviewer: Charity Bishop
This film has Elizabethan and Shakespearian scholars alike up in arms, because it suggests that the great, learned man known as William Shakespeare may not have written his own plays. I am a scholar of Elizabeth, and I saw it with a scholar of Shakespeare. Both of us were offended... and both of us were impressed.
Poet Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) has been dragged into the Tower of London for concealing the politically motivated plays of the late, lamented William Shakespeare. His belief that they have burn down with the Globe Theater sends the audience into earlier times, and the artistic merits of the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). A man of title but no longer a fortune thanks to his debts and his insistence upon writing, he searches for a name to put with his voice. Ben seems the ideal choice, a poet of little regard and no actual voice, a playwright whose works are of little account. But he is offended at the notion of putting his name to another man's plays and passes the manuscript along to William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), an actor who snatches up the opportunity to become famous. His plays swiftly come to the attention of the aging Elizabeth Tudor (Vanessa Redgrave), who recalls a much earlier time when she was similarly impressed by the Earl's works.
Their romance (Joely Richardson, Jamie Campbell Bower) plays out against the political scheming of her advisors, among whom is the hunchbacked Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg). Much later, the Earl of Oxford intends to influence the decision of the queen as to which of her heirs will inherit the throne -- and the play Richard III will incite the peasants against her trusted advisor. What results is a clever blending of actual events and fictitious conclusions. Some of them, like the curiosity surrounding how a man of little learned means could have written such magnificent plays, are valid questions. Others, like the fact that Elizabeth had numerous illegitimate children, stretch the imagination a bit. But as far as rearranging history goes, it is exceptionally well done and will make you wonder at the end if any of it is possible. My friend began with the assurance that Shakespeare wrote his own plays and concluded wondering if her initial theory is in fact the truth. In that regard, the film is a masterpiece of manipulation, lent an air of seriousness through the early narration of renowned Shakespearian performer Derek Jacobi. But when it comes right down to it, some of the conclusions it draws are far too unbelievable and do no service to my favorite historical monarch.
Many have complained that this film is difficult to follow, since it jumps back and forth between three different timelines -- the semi-modern story surrounding the arrest of the poet concealing the literary masterpieces, earlier in his own life as the Earl found a voice for his plays, and as a young man when he was romantically linked to Elizabeth. It does require the audience pay attention but I had little trouble keeping up with events. In all regards, it is an accomplishment of costuming and actor choices. Everyone is magnificent in their respective roles and the dialogue flows with ease. I am curious, however, as to why so much of the score was slight revision on Elizabeth's monumental audio track. When it comes to content, though, that is where it becomes problematic. There are implications and references to an incestuous relationship (neither person was aware they were related); that is the most cringe-worthy, but there is enough sexual content to warrant caution. We stumble along with a bystander into a room where a man is avidly engaged in sex with a prostitute (backside nudity); another scene includes movement; a man and a woman are in an intimate setting and/or engaged in removing one another's clothing. It is implied that a man is chronically unfaithful to his wife. There is some innuendo and profanity, including abuses of God's name. Violence ranges from swordfights in which men are killed to a man being beaten up in prison, and an actor spitting up fake blood on the stage.
A decent way to reference this film would be "intriguing." It leaps to wild conclusions but carries the audience along for the ride. It has a leading man who is unlikable yet we are too fascinated to abandon him entirely. I'm honestly torn in my opinion of it because on one hand, it makes a startling argument and blends history so well that it left even me questioning the motivations behind certain events. But on the other, I hate revisionist history and that is what it is actively engaged in doing, smearing the reputation of Elizabeth I along the way. But as much as it started steam rising over my head, it also entertained me. So what am I left with? Mixed feelings.