One of the big reasons to have well-known stars like Matt Damon or George Clooney in movies is that it allows the viewer to easily identify the characters of the film. You see one of them and you remember him and his character. This movie is populated by actors who, with all due respect, are less than household names. As a result it takes a long time to appreciate who is who, which inundates the poor viewer with confusion.
To cut through all the chaff, this is the story of the relationship of Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), and Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave and Jolely Richardson) with respect to who was the author of the plays we know as being credited to Shakespeare.
Unfortunately, it’s disappointing, overly long, convoluted, confusing, and fatuous, being directed by the master of that genre, Roland Emmerich. Emmerich, you will recall, was responsible for the absurd The Day After Tomorrow (2004), one of the more witless films of all time.
Even though he gets fine performances out of the cast, especially Ifans and Spall, Emmerich’s film is so long and confusing and tries to deal with so many things that it ultimately dulls the point he’s trying to make.
Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff bring everything but the kitchen sink into the plot, including alleging that the Queen gave birth to Essex and then had an incestuous relationship with him before beheading him. In fact Emmerich and Orloff seem to be making an argument here that there were many men in England who might have been able to call the Queen his mother or lover or both, so profligate was she.
My take on Shakespeare is that he did, indeed, write all his plays. Why wasn’t he more lauded in his own time? Because he was just a hack in his own time, not unlike today’s sitcom writers, just putting out his plays every year because that was his job. They were not lauded in their own time because the Globe Theater wasn’t the playground of the rich and famous. It was just an entertainment for the masses. Shakespeare did his work and went home and nobody thought anything about it. It just happened that what he wrote was brilliant, but nobody realized it until the mid-19th century when his work was revived and finally appreciated.
Genius sprouts in strange places. Who can explain why Gershwin and Mark Twain, just to take two examples, were so prolific when their parents and upbringing don’t justify what they created? But that’s the main basis for denying Shakespeare his place in the clouds.
One thing Emmerich did well was recreating the appalling living conditions of the Elizabethan era, especially in the recreation of the Globe Theater. I generally like suppositions like this, but it’s just too long and confusing. I think it could be re-edited and cut into a pretty good movie, but that’s not to be.
It’s when I see movies like this that I have respect for actors. Richard Gere and Topher Grace say the lines and hit their marks like professionals do, but almost from the opening scene it’s clear that this is a thriller that is less than thrilling.
Grace is looking for an assassin called “Cassius”; the movie lets us see that Gere is the man. So we go through the entire movie in a kind of cat and mouse game, hoping that Richard won’t off Topher and leave his wife and children without a breadwinner.
Even though the music is pretty good, I can’t remember sitting through a more boring “thriller” with more plotholes. Michael Brandt wrote (with Derek Haas) and directed, so he has to assume almost total responsibility for this. The chase scenes are silly; in fact there is a chase scene at the end, almost endless, as Richard chases another guy in a car that is nothing if not ridiculous.
The plotholes are major. At the end, Topher knows exactly where Richard is and drives directly to the spot. While it’s taken Richard about five minutes of chasing this other guy to get to where the denouement will take place, Topher gets there in about five seconds.
It is just hopelessly silly.