Movie Review: Anonymous
The Charlotte Observer
‘Anonymous’ is fun – if you take the anti-Shakespearean tale as events set in an unreal, alternate universe.
“Anonymous” asks us to believe Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays and let them be known as the work of an unheralded actor.
De Vere died in 1604, well before “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” were performed. So he’d have had to order those and many other masterpieces to be released during the decade after his death. To throw people off the track, he also published inferior poetry under his own name, left no private mention of his achievements for posterity and bribed a number of contemporaries to report that Will Shakespeare did write everything attributed to him.
If director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff believe this, they should next collaborate on a film proving U.S. astronauts never visited the moon. So let’s assume “Anonymous” is a what-if movie, the kind where Hitler wins World War II. If it’s nonsense as history, is it at least entertaining as fantasy?
Absolutely: The production design, cinematography and costuming serve the filmmakers’ grandiose vision. Every performance lends atmosphere to the story. If you buy into the tale wholeheartedly, it becomes a big-screen challenger to “The Tudors,” a kind of Hollywood bodice-ripper. (It may be no accident that young de Vere is played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who resembles Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ King Henry VIII in “The Tudors.”)
The main bodice being ripped belongs to Elizabeth I, who’s played as a lusty baby mama by Joely Richardson and then a doddering fool by Vanessa Redgrave (Richardson’s mom). Liz regularly has illegitimate kids and farms them out to noble families to be raised as the legitimate inheritors of earls and such.
But you won’t balk at that if you have already accepted the idea that Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is an illiterate alcoholic capable of murder and blackmail, a guy who claimed authorship of “Henry V” and “Romeo and Juliet” after they were performed.
The political and literary storylines meet in the character of the grown de Vere (Rhys Ifans). Because he’s high-born, he can’t be seen as the author of plays that appeal to the masses and might stir up a political furor. He tries to get playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to take credit, then pays Jonson to deliver them to Shakespeare.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) – de Vere’s bastard child by the queen – is in danger of losing his head as an alleged rebel. He’s the pawn in a struggle to pick Liz’s successor; de Vere wants the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), who is another of Liz’s unacknowledged kids, while the nasty Cecils (David Thewlis as greybeard dad, Edward Hogg as malformed son) want James I of Scotland.
There’s one serious, even touching idea under all the frippery: That words have the power to change the world, and that expressing oneself through art – even without credit – can keep the soul alive through otherwise dreary decades. (Though even this idea gets expressed melodramatically: de Vere’s disgusted wife snaps, “Edward – you’ve been writing again!”)
The filmmakers fudge dates, though the “present” scenes seem to be set in the last year of life for de Vere and Liz. (That’d be 1603-04.) They don’t even try to be accurate: Christopher Marlowe, fatally stabbed in a brawl a decade earlier, is around to make mischief, and “Richard III,” which was performed in the 1590s, makes its “debut” here.
The movie’s internally inconsistent, too. De Vere wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at 12 or so (!?!) and performed it for Liz, then gave court performances of other plays as he grew up. There wouldn’t be anything “anonymous” about them when they showed up in public; the queen’s nobles would immediately have identified the author.
But why poke holes in a Swiss cheese? Why not revel in the foolishness? The great Derek Jacobi plays a “chorus” like the one in “Henry V,” delivering an opening monologue of half-truths and misleading statements to proclaim Shakespeare a fraud. He surely enjoyed himself without taking all of this seriously, and we can do the same.