Roland Emmerich is best known for destroying the world in films like INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and 2012. This period political thriller is the furthest from his other work as any film he has done. It’s also easily his best film. Do I believe in its central premise that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays? Not any more than I believe that Shakespeare based ROMEO AND JULIET one his own love affair with a noble woman who dreamed of acting.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave, JULIA), the stage was seen ripe with sedition. The problem was that the queen loved plays, so her handlers William Cecil (David Thewlis, HARRY POTTER) and his hunchback son Robert (Edward Hogg, 2004’s ALFIE) had to tread lightly in their censorship campaign. Amid this backdrop, Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, NOTTING HILL), the son-in-law of William Cecil, writes plays in secret. After watching the work of Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto, BRIGHT STAR), the nobleman, who is wasting away his inheritance, commands the playwright to stage his work under the writer’s name. Unwilling to take the risk, the opportunistic actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, SHAUN OF THE DEAD) begins to claim he is the author of such works as HENRY VI, MACBETH and HAMLET.
I, in general, do not believe in mass conspiracies because conspiracies need humans to carry them out and humans talk. Oxfordian theorists read a lot into the work of Shakepeare to find parallels to the life of De Vere just like Nostradamus scholars force history into the psychic’s writings. And any proof to the other side is just proof of the conspiracy at work. That said, seen as an ingenious work of alternative historical fiction, the film works wonders.
Emmerich sets up his players well. De Vere is a passionate man who needs to express himself through writing. His place in society forces him to do so anonymously. He has been educated and seen the behind-the-scenes workings of the court. In witnessing the corruption of the Cecils, he wants to support the succession claim of the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid, TV’s MI-5). He tells the young impressionable Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE) that the pen is mightier than the sword.
De Vere is a tortured genius who puts many of the tragedies of his life into his work. As a young man the character is played by Jamie Campbell Bower (SWEENEY TODD) at a time when he fancies the Queen, played by Joely Richardson (THE PATRIOT). If De Vere has a weakness it is his own hubris. He looks down upon the commoner Johnson, who he chose to stage his plays because the writer had no voice of his own. Jealousy starts to brew. Johnson becomes envious of the work De Vere produces and the fame that the illiterate Shakespeare receives for it. De Vere is too tormented by the applause given his work that is directed toward another unworthy man.
Both Ifans and Bower bring drive and obsession to the character. De Vere is a man who cares about ideas and how they can change the world. He knows the power and wants to exploit it, but the forces conspiring against him know secrets that he couldn’t imagine. The story takes on the scope of a Greek tragedy.
Mother and daughter, Redgrave and Richardson, also give their queen passion. She cherishes the freedom that plays bring and the truth they so often speak. At times she comes off as a pawn, but in the end she is the queen. Redgrave makes us believe that Queen Elizabeth I is a woman who has endured a great deal of heartache and sacrifice over her lifetime, but holds onto youthful delights as much as she can.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
De Vere plays a nobleman, a scholar, a murderer, a lover, a husband, a father and a rebel over the course of his life. But I guess you have to be all of those in order to be a great playwright. The same can be said of the real Shakespeare who continues to inspire the imagination in ways that he might never have imagined.