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So, I got around to watching this on April 23, which is unofficially regarded as William Shakespeare's birthday (and is certainly his death day). The movie is partially about the very old question of whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote the plays and poems which are attributed to him. I believe I first became aware of this question in grade school (I can't be more precise than that, and in fact it's possible it wasn't until high school), but while there have been many, many suggestions over the years of other people who might have really written all that stuff, the only name I've ever really remembered is Ben Johnson. (And maybe Kit Marlowe, who had a rather small role in this film.) Anyway, the movie begins with Derek Jacobi giving a monologue, on stage, in the present. And as always, he's pretty great. But he's not really important to the movie. (He'll be seen again at the very end.)
Most of the movie is set in Shakespeare's time. The narrative actually jumps around through several different periods in that era. It begins (after the opening monologue) with soldiers chasing Ben Johnson, who hides a satchel of writings in a theater, which the soldiers burn down, before arresting Johnson. The movie will eventually cycle back to their torture and interrogation of him, just before the closing monologue. But most of the story is set in earlier times. It's a bit hard to follow, and I must say that while I don't know a lot about the history of that era, I'm sure the movie takes great liberties with history, in order to make a compelling story. So, there's this nobleman named Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), who gets Johnson to stage plays he- Edward- had written, claiming they were written by himself- Johnson. Although at first the play he stages is billed as by "Anonymous." It's an amazing success, but before Johnson could claim credit- which he was hesitant to do- one of the actors, William Shakespare (Rafe Spall), claimed credit for himself. (He knew Johnson was uncomfortable with the whole situation, which I guess he saw as an excuse/opportunity to be self-serving.) Anyway, I definitely don't recall having heard of Edward de Vere before, I mean as a possible writer of Shakespeare's works, but that's because I've never paid much attention to that whole question. I believe in reality Shakespeare really was the author of, you know, Shakespeare. But I'm willing to suspend disbelief for the purpose of the story.
But the movie's not all about the whole Shakespeare vs. Johnson vs. de Vere debate. It's at least as much about politics (probably more about politics, actually). I'll try to mention a few things in chronological order, rather than the order in which they happen in the film. As a young boy, Edward met Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), who enjoyed a play he had written (which viewers will recognize as "A Midsummer Night's Dream"). Some years later, Edward's foster parents (his real parents were unknown) die, and he becomes a ward of William Cecil (David Thewlis), an advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Edward quickly fails to hit it off with William's son, Robert. However, William's daughter, Anne, had romantic feelings for Edward, apparently. And some time later... something happens that allows William to blackmail Edward into marrying Anne. And I need to mention that the Cecils all consider plays to be sinful, so Edward can't pursue his great love of writing. Later still, Edward begins an affair with Queen Elizabeth, who loves his writing.
But the majority of the movie is set about forty years later, I guess. Edward attends one of Ben Johnson's plays, and it's after that that he makes his arrangement with him. Meanwhile, William and Robert Cecil are conspiring to get James, the King of Scotland, to succeed the aging Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) as King of England. Edward and his younger friend Henry, the Earl of Southampton, want to prevent that. They're in favor of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, succeeding Elizabeth (rumor has it he's one of her illegitimate children). To a certain extent, Edward uses his plays- which have made Shakespeare incredibly popular with the public- to sway the public's political fervor against the Cecils, though it doesn't really seem like they needed much swaying. However, the Cecils themselves are pretty devious and clever. And... I don't really want to say any more about the plot. Though there is one really disturbing revelation, eventually (which, as Robert Cecil says, is like something out of a Greek tragedy). Oh, and in the end, there is a bit of irony in which, on at least one point, the Cecils' machinations backfire, which I found quite amusing.
Anyway, in spite of historical inaccuracies and difficulty in following the flashbacks, I really liked the movie quite a bit. Certainly well-acted all around, very dramatic, with great staging (and great stage-within-a-staging, for the plays). I feel like either half of the movie's plot could have made a reasonably good movie on its own, but intertwining the political intrigue with the theatrical... um, intrigue... worked rather effectively. I daresay it made the story greater than the sum of its parts.