dir: Roland Emmerich
Roland Emmerich has previously been best known for making some of the most explode-y and truly stupid movies the cinema and your eyes have ever played host to. Independence Day, 2012, The Patriot, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC – there are more, and it’s a long, ignoble list of universal infamy.
So why’s he making a movie about the ‘real’ story behind William Shakespeare, when Shakespeare has about as much in common with Emmerich’s cinematic atrocities as Andrew Dice Clay, Pauly Shore or Rodney Rude do?
Who knows? I mean, I could look it up. I’m sure there’s dozens of interviews with him giving what he claims is the real motivation for doing so, but, considering the fact that most of that sort of PR guff is bullshit anyway, I choose not to inform myself in such a manner.
It’s far more tempting to just guess, based on scant or no evidence, as to his deep-seeded desire to tear down someone substantially greater than himself.
If someone like Kenneth Brannagh, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, a literature scholar or one of the Kardashians tried it, you’d think it arose because of their deep connection to and love for Shakespeare’s works, since they’d seemingly devoted much of their lives (or their bandwagons) to him. But because of that connection, there could be an assumption made that they’re not, like Iago from Othello, motivated by just motiveless malice.
When a hack like Emmerich, someone responsible for films as lobotmised and terrible as anything Michael Bay has ever managed, just with less robots, makes a movie where the whole point is that Shakespeare was an illiterate hack and never wrote the plays he was acclaimed for, you suspect that resentment and envy are the key.
Ultimately, though, and whilst I strongly and loudly assert that not for a second do I believe any of the alternate / conspiracy theory scenario at play here, I don’t think that’s what motivated him.
The main point the flick is trying to make is that the works themselves, works the flick never really devotes much time to in an artistic sense, are sublime and truly eternal, but that pretty much every living being in the Elizabethan Age was a scoundrel, a scumbag and a fuck-up.
And that includes Elizabeth the First. Gloriana. The Virgin Queen!
Despite that, I actually enjoyed it, and found it to be a bit of a rollicking yarn, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain why.
This flick was savaged by the critics and ignored at the box office, but it’s not basic perversity that allowed me to enjoy it. I have no particular beef with Shakespeare, and acknowledge that his plays, some of them at least, constitute the cornerstones of art, whether it be other plays, literature, or even Chinese and Japanese flicks. There’s a reason why everyone from Akira Kurosawa to Bazz Luhrmann to Campbell Scott to Ethan Hawke to Kenneth Brannagh to Feng Xiaogang keep pumping out versions of King Lear or Hamlet or Macbeth. And, presumably, a good reason why we keep sitting through them.
The thing is, many of us, if not most of us who’ve grown up all Western and entitled in our ever so privileged education system, have been told every fucking day forever that Shakespeare is the greatest and everything he wrote is the greatest and he’s just so goddamn awesome and anyone who doesn’t loudly proclaim their love for everything with his brand name on it is a philistine of the highest order.
So many of us, even those of a pretentious artistic bent, still regard him with the view that all that falls under the ‘Shakespeare’ banner is something along the lines of eating your vegetables and saying your prayers before going nigh-nighs on your My Little Pony-bedecked pillows.
It’s natural to rebel against all that. Plus, revisionist or alternate-history retellings of allegedly well-known and accepted events bring to light new ideas and new qualities to previously accepted and by now thoroughly boring biographies.
Not for a second does my enjoyment of this constitute an acceptance of the premise. Not for a second do I buy the incredibly elaborate, historically hysterical and utterly unbelievable ‘what if?’ conspiracy theory that this flick embraces and extols.
What I liked about it is the sheer balls it took to even think about putting it out there, and a couple of the performances, not least of which is the one Rhys Ifans delivers, who puts in a splendid performance as Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Who, you might be asking yourself, if you’ve never heard the name before, and thought it was going to be all Shakespeare this and Anne Hathaway that, and Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Aphra Behn and Gwyneth Paltrow? They’re all still household names, surely, from that gentle age.
Why, De Vere’s the chap who really wrote all those sonnets and plays, didn’t you know? It wasn’t that disgusting, lecherous, illiterate and violent Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). No, this flick contends that although Shakespeare could read well enough, with which he was able to perform in plays and tread the boards semi-competently, he was functionally illiterate and too busy drinking and whoring to hone his craft, or to even have a craft to hone.
Plus, he was peasant scum. So the flick makes the point that no-one else really cared about, being: How could someone from the lower depths of society, from the mob of humanity, how could they have an education broad enough, that went deep enough into the classics, to be able to transmute those rare elements into literary gold, thus ensuring that school children for centuries in the future would be bored for evermore?
[img_assist|nid=1598|title=Oh Bessie, behave yourself|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=247]
In other words, it couldn’t have been some mere glove-maker’s son who connected to the Divine, into the wellspring of inspiration and creativity and came up with these sublime words. It had to be one of noble class. It just had to be.
Not only that, but a goddamn Earl, at that, and the Earl of Oxford, no less. Edward himself has not had an easy life, what with losing his parents at a young age, but he was fortunate enough to catch the eye of his beloved queen Betty (Joely Richardson as the young monarch, Vanessa Redgrave in the latter scenes), who thought he was a real sweet piece of boyish jailbait.
Not only that, but that brazen hussy had her wicked way with the young chap. The thing is though, it wasn’t merely his rakish good looks and swordplay that entranced him: it was the plays he wrote that delighted her, and presumably made her go all gooey in her womanly bits.
But between Edward’s dick and the young Queen’s frilly pantaloons stands the stern and supreme cock-blocking presence of Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis), advisor to the Queen, and all-round killjoy. Because of other circumstances, including the fact that he is Edward’s father-in-law as well, and one of the most powerful men in England, everything else Edward wants is frustrated, blocked, put off or put just out of reach.
Also, he has the demonic urge, and the angelic ability, to write, and to write sublimely. He cannot, for various reasons, despite loving the written word and constantly watching the performance of plays, let the world know he is a writer. Therefore, he needs to find a patsy, a front, a pigeon, a stand-in. For some reason.
Initially, that stand-in is Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), who, despite being very handsome and waving awesome facial hair, seems borderline retarded. But a supremely untalented hack, with more swagger and no shame ends up taking that relationship away from Jonson, instead supplanting him and compelling De Vere to give his plays and credit to him: Shakespeare.
And you know, Shakespeare is such a loathsome prick in this that drunkenness and whoring are the least of his crimes, which surely is some kind of blasphemy. There’s nothing, including extortion, betrayal and murder, that he won’t stoop to in order to keep the good times rolling.
As this all rolls on, Edward sees his great works distorted, misread and misunderstood by morons, and sees morons take the applause and the prestige owed to him, and yet all he really wants is for the Queen to just watch his stuff again. By ‘stuff’ I mean plays, not his, you know, other stuff.
He uses his plays and his poems to communicate with the Queen, to remind her of the love they shared, but also to communicate and manipulate the theatre-going masses. Not just for rabble-rousing the crowd and fun n’ profit does he write Henry V, which almost gets the crowd wanting to invade France all over again. And when he, through Shakey, unleashes Richard III upon the world, it is with the express intention of inflaming the public, and inspiring the mob to storm the palace.
This is all, to me, interesting enough, even as none of it is plausible. But on top of this they also throw in several kitchen sinks, rebellions, the shameful imputation that Elizabeth had countless bastards out there, intrigue, Scottish people, hunchbacks and sour wives who only exist to drag down protagonists and make them feel like shit for no good reason.
Through all of this Rhys Ifans keeps a straight face, and plays it all like it’s a serious flick, which is both to his and the flick’s credit. He never nods or winks at the absurdity of it all, and genuinely comes across as a deep character, one who imbues his role with genuine pathos. It’s really sad to watch him being subject to these forces of mediocrity and religious dogmatism around him in this previously Golden Age, and to be caught up in the machinations of people who can’t even appreciate the beauty that he has wrought, that he gave the world. The most touching scene for me is when he tells Ben Jonson that of all the applause he sought out, the one set of hands that never clapped and which he most wanted to hear, were Ben’s.
That really got to me. Towards the end the flick takes a turn, or spits out a plot point so nuclear, so poisonous, so Greek Tragedy, that I was at first horrified, and then dismissive of it, since it was so absurd. But the character of Edward, and his supremely self-imposed fate as the most unsung literary hero of all time, worked well enough for me that I was able to forgive the story’s many, many inanities.
The two Elizabeths are remarkably wonderful as well. Mother and daughter playing the same role had to be a lot of fun. Playing Elizabeth seems to be the role every British actress has to do at least once before they can get their union card. They were lovely, even if I doubt any other flick has dared depict her in such a negative light, with the possible exception of the second series of Blackadder.
I enjoyed it, I guess I took it in the spirit that wasn’t intended, but I did see it as more than just a pointless exercise, because, at its core, it’s about the creative / artistic impulse, expressed by a character who can’t not write, even if he wanted to, with everyone telling him not to, and with the world not even knowing what masterpieces he’s capable of.
But don’t go confusing it for credible history. If you quote any of this in an essay or in a conversation as being credible or even vaguely possible, you deserve to be canonised, by which I mean the guilty person deserves to be shot out of a cannon.
7 times the Elizabethan age seems mostly to be defined by lots of mud and codpieces out of 10
“It showed your betters as fools who'd go through life barely managing to get food from plate to mouth were it not for the cleverness of their servants. All art is political, Jonson, otherwise it would just be decoration.” – Anonymous.