Mark Reviews Movies

Anonymous (2011)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Rhys Ifans, Sebastian Armesto, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson, Paolo De Vita, Trystan Gravelle, Derek Jacobi

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 10/28/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 27, 2011

Conspiracy theories about the source of the plays of William Shakespeare have been around for centuries and, more than likely, will continue to pester the works as long as there are people to read them. Those murmurs are surely to be bolstered by Anonymous, which posits the nearly century-old theory that Edward de Vere, 17th  Earl of Oxford penned what most of us consider to be the collected works of Shakespeare.

The theory rests on the fallacious, condescending premise that no common man—the son of a mere glove-maker—could understand the minds of nobility and royalty to write in their voice. By that same logic then, how could a high and mighty nobleman possibly grasp the mentality of a gravedigger? If one must have a real-life correlation to prompt events in a drama—say, as is presented here, that the murder of a man behind a curtain inspires Polonius' death in the closet scene of Hamlet—then what possible episode in Edward's life would motivate him to write the pies made of human meat in Titus Andronicus? If, for that matter, Edward is such a faultless playwright, composing A Midsummer Night's Dream in childhood, how does one account for Titus Andronicus in the first place? Then there's the qualm that de Vere died before a good number of the plays are believed to have been written.

The movie has no answers to these conundrums (save for the last one, which the script resolves by having the plays published after de Vere's demise—forgetting the important step of actually performing them), and the story it presents is as dubious as screenwriter John Orloff clearly suspects the accepted history to be. Put quite simply, it is a very silly notion.

Still, Orloff has clearly completed his homework in creating a vast and, as a result of the movie's awkward flashback structure, overly convoluted tapestry of Elizabethan (and, for a few brief minutes, Jacobean) London, filled with familiar people and places (The former over-lit and the latter obscured by director Roland Emmerich and cinematographer Anna Foerster). There is Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle), the writer of tragedies who met a tragic and untimely end over a bar tab (Orloff suggests a more sinister motive here), seen as a foppish gent who imagines himself the foremost authority on history plays. Here is Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), a comic writer who often finds himself in trouble with the law for caricaturizing noblemen, simultaneously thrilled and demoralized by his contemporary's writing, which he knows his own will never approach.

Into this world, Edward (Rhys Ifans in the story's present and Jamie Campbell Bower in its past) frequently ventures. An admirer of the arts, he is regularly in attendance at the Rose to view new plays, subject to the whims of laws against sedition and other offenses against the aristocracy or the government.

Orloff focuses on the political intrigues of the day, especially how father and son William (David Thewlis) and Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), advisers to Queen Elizabeth (mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play her at different ages), attempt to push the queen into naming King James VI of Scotland as her heir. Meanwhile, the Earls of Southampton (Xavier Sameul) and Essex (Sam Reid) devise a plan to ensure that Essex, one of Elizabeth's many illegitimate sons, takes up the crown after her death. Edward, the ward of the Cecils and spiteful of their Puritan upbringing, decides to team up with the young nobles, and noting how the theater can swell the emotions of the groundlings, he determines that the play's the thing wherein he'll manipulate the conscience of the mob.

Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) does fit into this eventually. An actor, a drunkard, and an illiterate (able to read but not write), he steals what should have been Ben Jonson's glory (Edward makes a deal that Jonson will take credit for whatever plays Edward writes, but Jonson has a change of heart at the last minute) after a rousing performance of Henry V. Shakespeare here is a buffoon except in his cunning in uncovering Edward's identity to demand more money from the secret playwright so that he might open the Globe Theatre, which Shakespeare asserts will be a more suitable space for "his" plays.

The performance of them is like a greatest hits compilation of famous scenes, and we know it's only a matter of time before the hunchbacked Robert inspires Edward to write Richard III. These scenes are invariably the movie's best, imagining an organic theatrical experience where peasants reach out for the actors playing the righteous monarchs of their history and throw produce at the despicable ones. Derek Jacobi appears at a modern-day theater playing the Prologue to the events about to unfold to a suspiciously hushed crowd.

The rub is that Edward's story, which, in one character's view, takes on the likeness of a Greek tragedy, is quite the tedious one. Whatever one might think of the hypothetical scenario, Anonymous leaves us longing that it is incorrect, if only for the fact that the popular view of Shakespeare's authorship is at least an interesting one.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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