Love the author? Rereading something pithy? Here are films – fiction and documentary – about the person.
William Shakespeare is credited with writing 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and many narrative poems despite the fact he had minimal education or culture, and could barely read. (As an actor, he had trouble with speeches.) In over 400 years not a single manuscript has been found in his handwriting. When the bard died, leaving an illiterate wife and two illiterate daughters, his will made no mention of any plays or books. The following two films – one dramatizing possibility based on known facts, the other a documentary ending in conjecture – are completely convincing.
Anonymous 2011 Directed by Roland Emmerich. A combination historical thriller and dramatized theory that Shakespeare didn’t write the works attributed to him. Narrative goes back and forth in time to early and late years of Elizabeth I (played young by Joely Richardson and later by Vanessa Redgrave). Court is under the control of Machiavellian, Puritan advisor William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his hunchback son Robert (Edward Hogg). Royal bastards are secretly raised by nobles. Though the queen chooses to be unaware of them, several end up taking part in history.
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (played young by Jamie Campbell Bower, then by Rhys Ifans ) arranges for the prison release of “seditious” playwright/poet Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) with the proposition that Johnson see to it the Earl’s plays are produced without the noble’s name. (The latter would’ve meant disgrace.) Perhaps concerned it would be a flop, Johnson doesn’t take credit for Henry V instead crediting it to “Anonymous.” When the play is presented, William Shakespeare steps forward as the audience calls, “Author! Author!” The dye is cast.
Johnson continues to retrieve plays from de Vere without sharing the source with an increasingly suspicious Shakespeare. Performances (and their supposed author) become the talk of London. Shakespeare follows Johnson, then blackmails the Earl into supplying more money, enough to build the actor’s own theater – The Globe.
The actual last performance put on at The Globe before it burned down was Henry VIII. It’s said that a canon misfired igniting the wood structure. Here, its final production is Richard III, depicted as a hunchback (in fact, he had curvature of the spine) in order to rouse the people against Robert Cecil. Soldiers burn down the structure smoking out a hiding Ben Johnson, unwittingly destroying all remaining work by the dying de Vere.
History takes over. We see royal succession. Robert Cecil is aware of de Vere’s authorship and makes it his business never to see him credited. Entertaining as well as filled with intriguing possibility. Superb production values. Wonderful cast. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Shakespeare Enigma 2011 Directed by Eike Schmitz, Suzanne Utzt. Reenactments, on site footage, and scholars contribute to the theory that William Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written works attributed to him. The documentary posits that either Edward de Vere (see above) or Christopher Marlowe – here, having faked his death, submitting plays from elsewhere on the continent – is the actual author. Free with Amazon Prime. If curious read Peter Dawkins.
All is True 2019 Directed by and Starring Kenneth Branagh focuses on Shakespeare’s return to Stratford and wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) after the Globe Theater burned down. It’s a character study with meticulously detailed background and well worth seeing. On Amazon Prime with a Starz trail.
The Last Station 2010 Based on the biographical novel by Jay Parini. Directed by Michael Hoffman. 1910 – the final months of Leo Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) needs a secretary and the author’s head disciple Vladimir Cherktov (Paul Giamatti), under house arrest, needs a spy at the author’s estate. Young disciple Valentin Fedorovich Bulgakov (James McAvoy), instructed to keep a detailed diary, is thrilled to be sent to work with his hero.
In a battle to the end, Cherktov is working to secure copyrights to Tolstoy’s works for public domain i.e. the Russian People as dictated by the Tolstoyan credo of no private property. He’s pitted himself against the author’s volatile wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren – splenid), who strives to protect her family’s inheritance and legacy. Unlike her husband, the Countess believes in ownership.
Valentin observes firsthand differences between written doctrine and living one’s life. Tolstoy, for example, believes in physical love, while his followers abstain. The gregarious, big-hearted author is torn between a nagging wife of 48 years whom he adores, but can’t live with and loyal, toadying Cherktov who throws conscience in his face. Valintin gets attached to the old man while developing immense sympathy for his often mistreated and certainly plotted against wife.
While there and living on a neighboring Tolstoyan commune, the secretary also falls in love and loses his virginity. Except for the diversionary latter, solid film making and an intriguing true story. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Molière 2007 In subtitled French. Directed by Laurent Tirard. The film is bookended by Molière (Romain Duris) and his troupe arriving back in Paris after 13 years of touring. It’s 1658. Insisting on performing tragedy (at which he’s terrible) instead of expected comedy, the company’s premiere fails and its leader is carted off to prison for debt.
The actor is released into the hands of wealthy Monsieur Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini – wonderful!), transported to his chateau in order to teach his savior to act. Though married to the beautiful Elmire (Laura Morante), Jordain longs for a young, neighboring widow and plans to perform a monologue he’s written at her salon in hopes of gaining favor. Costumed like a priest (problematic in itself), Molière is introduced to the household as tutor to the master’s younger daughter.
Jourdain’s pursuit is complicated by his own stupidity; duplicitous court “friend” Duarte (Edouard Baer), who borrows a great deal of money, supposedly carries notes (he tears up) and gifts (he pockets or gives in his own name) to the lady furthering Jordain’s cause; Jordain’s older daughter’s clandestine liaison; and the protagonist’s powerful attraction to Elmire.
Molière manages to right almost everything while sacrificing what evolves into genuine love. He then begins to write a new kind of comedy affecting emotions, rather than simply evoking laughter. Thoroughly entertaining. Handsome to look at. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Portraits: Molière 2014 Directed by Laure Delale. Free with Amazon Prime.
Dumas 2012 (Alexandre Dumas) In subtitled French. Directed by Safy Nabbou. The author of such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, as well as successful travel books, plays, essays, and poetry, depended on numerous assistants and collaborators. (True.) Most frequent of these was Auguste Maque, who later took Dumas to court to try to get credit and a higher rate of payment. (He was awarded the money, but not byline.) This focuses on that symbiotic relationship.
Larger than life Dumas (Gerard Depardieu, who looks very like the original) careens from camaraderie to dismissal of his writing partner, quiet Maquet (Benoit Poelvoorde – splendid!) With a wife and children in one part of the countryside, and live-in mistress Céleste (Dominique Blanc) in another, the author beds at least one woman everywhere the two travel, additionally overindulging in food and alcohol. He writes contiuously to maintain lavish lifestyle, dictating passages Maquet polishes and extends or assigning sections for each to complete and combine. They talk over everything.
One day, young, beautiful Charlotte (Melanie Thierry) mistakes Maquet for Dumas and appeals to his former known stature as a Republican in order that he exert influence to free her ill father from prison. Maquet is so struck by her passion and beauty, he signs one of Dumas’ books with the author’s name.
Entanglement occurs as he tries to fulfill Charlotte’s request while keeping her away from the predatory Dumas. When invited to a Paris apartment, Charlotte shows up with crates of guns and a plan. The government begins to watch them. Dumas finally meets and naturally pursues the beauty. Worthy Celeste is hurt and angry. Charlotte discovers her hero is an imposter, yet Maquet goes on to be heroic. Good production, good film. Captivating. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Portraits: Victor Hugo 2014 In subtitled French. Directed by Laure Delalex. Using narration, contemporary locales, reenactment, caricatures, and photos, this documentary introduces the dramatist/novelist/poet held in high such regard by the French he’s said to equal Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes. Hugo grew up reading voraciously and wrote a 320 verse poem at the age of 15. He resolved to be “Chateaubriand or nothing.” The author was a natural leader, a good father, and an aesthetically aware decorator – as we see by his homes.
Wife Adele, whom he’d known since childhood, was aware of Juliette, Hugo’s mistress of 50 years and was apparently relieved he had a respectable alternative. There were others. The author proudly kept a “guestbook” of photos. After a coup by Napoleon III, his family took up residence in Guernsey. Hugo railed against poverty and spoke for socialism. When amnesty was offered in 1859, the author refused to return until his country was once again a republic.
Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which shamed Paris into repairs on the cathedral, put him at the forefront of the Romantic literary movement. The film’s intermittent host is irritating. Here are facts, not personality illumination. Free with Amazon Prime.
Top Bigstock photo: William Shakespeare bronze bust statue in Verona, Italy, the city of Romeo and Juliet