This beautifully filmed movie presents some evidence that William Shakespeare was not the true author of the all the works attributed to him.  There have been any number of hypotheses put forth disputing Shakespeare’s ability to write the most renowned and quoted plays and sonnets in the English speaking world.  And the argument still rages today; no one has been able to prove the issue either way.  As told in this fictional version, it is an intriguing story of how dirty politics made it impossible for the identity of the real author to be known.  As such, it is both fascinating and appalling.  

 The theory as depicted in the film is that Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was taken under the wing of William Cecil, Elizabeth the First’s Principle Secretary and closest advisor, after his father died.  The ambitious Cecil, wanting to groom him for Elizabeth’s successor, blackmailed him into marrying his daughter and through various other ways, maintained control over Edward as much as he could.  Unfortunately for him, Edward insisted on writing plays and poems that embarrassed his mentor, whose strict religious principles forbid any kind of fictional work.  

 Edward got around this proscription by writing plays and giving them to someone else to publish under his name.  The man he gave the scripts to, Ben Jonson, could not in good conscience consent to this, so he asked William Shakespeare, an aspiring young actor, to publish and present the plays under his name.  Romance, intrigue, and human greed eventually complicate the plan, with tragic consequences.  In this fictional account, the Earl was a true nobleman, and despite betrayal after betrayal, kept his part of the bargain, and never seemed to waver about wanting someone else’s name to be penned to his writings.  It was words, he said, words that were more important than swords or anything else.

 Historical accounts of the real Earl of Oxford are not so flattering.  He was continually in debt, an irresponsible husband and father, was frequently in trouble with the authorities, and few if any of the works clearly attributed to him come up to the level of Shakespearean works we know.  Another important fact is that several Shakespearean plans were written/published after his death.  However, he was always a major patron of the arts, owned several theater companies, and had many artistic works dedicated to him.

 That being said, the film ends up being an intriguing—although somewhat confusing—story that rings plausible if one ignores historical facts.  The script and direction, the cinematography, the music, and the actors all contribute to the excellence of this work.  Rhys Ifans as the Earl, Vanessa Redgrave as the older Queen Elizabeth and Joely Richardson, Redgrave’s daughter, as the younger Queen give stunning performances.  Viewers who are familiar with Shakespeares’s plays will get more out of the film, in that parts of about a dozen plays are shown, and if one knows the main thrust of he play, it will make more sense.  But that is not necessary to enjoy it simply as drama.

 The cinematographer, Anna J. Foerster (Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012), is likely to get an Oscar nomination for her work.  Using the latest in digital cameras, and drawing on the paintings of Vermeer, the French artist Georges de La Tour, and portraits from the Elizabethan era, Foerster manipulates light in ingenious ways to achieve the effects she desires.  Soft transition between colors, flickering flames from candlelight and fireplaces, silks draped over the set, and even smoke coming from a machine are used to indicate the times and places in which events take place.  She says, “The story’s timeline covers decades, and each period has a specific look.  Scenes set in an earlier era are rendered in vivid, glowing colors and captured in fluid camera moves with long lenses that separate Elizabeth and Oxford from their surroundings.  The look of the story’s present is cold and grim, with many scenes composed in wide, lock-off shots, particularly those that take place in the royal court” (American Cinematographer, Vol. 92(9) p. 32, 2011).

 For art, history, and Shakespearean buffs, this film is a must-see.

Grade:  A

By:  Donna R. Copeland