This is one movie from action director Roland Emmerich in which nothing blows up—except the crackpot theory that Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the canon of plays and sonnets historically attributed to William Shakespeare. This hothouse melodrama of Tudor intrigue, sex, and politics, scripted by John Orloff, is based on the controversial “Oxfordian” theories. It’s all sheer humbuggery, but still an entertaining spectacle: the costumes are exquisite, there are breathtaking overhead shots Elizabethan London, and it’s populated by a bunch of attractive young actors on their way up. Oxford (Rhys Ifans) has written in secret, ever since being fostered into the Puritan household of Queen Elizabeth’s counselor, William Cecil, where poetry was forbidden. However, the dashing young Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower) charmed the lusty, poetry-loving young queen (Joely Richardson).
But now that the queen is in her dotage (Vanessa Redgrave, playing the formidable Bess as dotty and girlish), Oxford starts leaking his plays to the Globe theater company to influence public opinion (or “the mob,” as all the nobles call them) in the matter of the queen’s heir. Elizabeth’s court is teeming with her bastard children, including the young earls of Essex (Sam Reid) and Southampton (Xavier Samuel), whose doomed rebellion is portrayed as a patriotic attempt to retain the English crown for the English Tudor bloodline. Oxford refuses to claim authorship of the work because it’s simply not done, or something. But Will Shakespeare, a buffoonish comic actor in the company, puts his name to the first unsigned manuscript—a charade Oxford finds it politically expedient to maintain, bankrupting himself to buy the upstart Will’s complicity. This portrait of Shakespeare as a smarmy, boorish illiterate is irksome (although Rafe Spall plays him with vivid comic brio); so is the elitist idea that only a nobleman could possibly be capable of such brilliance. And would the canniest monarch of her age farm out such a litter of children among the noblest houses of England to be manipulated by her enemies? The filmmakers cheerfully massacre the facts of English history and the allegorical meaning of the plays themselves, while Ifan’s mature Oxford is anonymous indeed; circumspect and elegant, but lacking in passion or presence. (Sebastian Armesto’s courageous Ben Jonson emerges as the hero.) But the era is conveyed in all its messy splendor, and snippets of the plays in performance are often thrilling. (PG-13) 130 minutes. (★★★) Lisa Jensen. Watch film trailer >>>