Anonymous (2011)

Anonymous (2011) – I am a theatre student. I take History of Theatre and was offered extra credit for seeing this movie. I otherwise was not planning on it. An anti-Stratfordian drama from the director of Godzilla and The Patriot didn’t exactly pique my interest, but I’ll take my extra credit where I can get it. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It seems to me largely an argument based on class (as in “how could an uneducated commoner write so well of matters of court?”). I’ve never really believed someone’s station in life defines their ability. He was an actor, he was around plays constantly and if you want to learn how to do theatre, DO THEATRE. Anyway I accept that there’s other evidence calling Shakespeare’s authorship into question but really what it boils down to is that I don’t give a shit. As a writer I know I should be upset if a man is not given credit for a truly phenomenal body of work but fuck it. As was said in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, “when the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” So there you have my biases.

All that being said I can conceive of a good movie about the secret authorship of Shakespeare’s plays by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Derek Jacobi is the modern narrator (possibly playing himself as Jacobi actually believes this stuff) who leads us back through time when de Vere (Rhys Ifans), entrusts his plays to playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) so they can be produced under his name. Johnson, without reading the plays, is skeptical of the nobleman’s writing ability and allows boorish actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to pass them off as his own instead. Other writers of the time are represented, such as Thomas Dekker(Robert Emms), Thomas Nashe (Tony Way), and Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle).  Marlowe, often theorized to be a homosexual, is played as a stereotypically bitchy queen in what I found to be a particularly tone-deaf choice by the film-makers (though director Roland Emmerich is himself gay so it was not likely intended pejoratively).

The film also has a love story between Edward and Queen Elizabeth I (played as an old woman by Vanessa Redgrave and as a younger woman by Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson). Younger Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) and the Queen had a torrid affair but were ripped apart by the machinations of Elizabeth’s advisor and Edward’s guardian William Cecil (David Thewlis). The movie stages de Vere’s life as provided much of the inspiration for “Shakespeare’s” plays. As a young man, de Vere kills a man hiding behind a curtain the way Hamlet kills Polonius. De Vere and the Queen encounter each other in a similar manner as Romeo and Juliet do at the beginning of that play. Cecil’s son Robert (Edward Hogg) is a treacherous hunchback shown to be the basis for the Shakespearean Richard III.

Since the majority of Emmerich’s films (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) involve large-scale destruction, you might infer from that that subtlety is not really his strong suit as a director. You would be right. Anonymous is kind of a mess. There’s also an unsettling plot twist late in the film that doesn’t really add anything (SPOILER [highlight to read]: Another film with a similar twist, Oldboy, pulled it off wonderfully because everything before that built up to it and the motivation behind it made sense in a sick sick sick sick way. Anonymous just kind of dumps it on you to make you go “EW!” and then doesn’t really bring it up again. To state the obvious: Park Chan-wook is just a better film-maker than Roland Emmerich. END OF SPOILER). Anonymous is kind of a mess in a lot of ways. It seems like the film-makers know that Shakespeare (meaning whoever wrote the plays) was great but have failed to grasp why exactly. I suppose there is some entertainment value to be gleaned from it, but none worth actually paying money for. If you’re really curious, check it out when it’s on cable sometimes. If you’re jonesing for fictionalized accounts of the Bard’s life then check out Shakespeare in Love instead. Or check out some of the great film adaptations of Shakespeare’s works themselves. This movie isn’t really worth your time (but will hopefully be worth 10 extra credit point in History of Theatre).

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