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Rapid Review: Anonymous

November 6, 2011


“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and

some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”  –William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


Ah, the great words of  The Bard himself.  But who WAS the man behind some of the most influential words ever written?  Was he a self-made genius (the very definition of achieving greatness), or merely a convenient front for a talented and scrupulous court insider?

Many noted Shakespearean actors and scholars believe that The Bard’s plays and poetry were actually written by the flamboyant and intelligent Earl of Oxford, one of the most influential movers and shakers of Elizabeth I’s court.  The Earl was even married to the daughter of Elizabeth’s I’s closest adviser.   The Oxfordian debate has run rampant among scholars, directors and actors for over a hundred years.  At its heart lies this question: could a man from such humble and mundane origins have written such groundbreaking plays and poetry? The debate rages on even today, with each side claiming victory based on what scant evidence we have about Willy S.’s personal and professional lives.

Rhys Ifans as Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford

Those who favor the Oxfordian Theory claim that Shakespeare’s works (most notably the history plays) contain vital clues about court life that only an insider would know.  They also cite the numerous gaps in the records regarding Shakespeare’s life (before the era of Google, most of us humble commoners were barely a blip on the world’s radar) as evidence that something was afoot regarding the most famous author in history.  Say what you will about the theory. Personally, I think the folks involved in such a cover up would rival those necessary to fake a moon landing and are pretty preposterous.   It’s also a tad insulting to say that only a wealthy court insider could possess such genius.  What a knock to the ambitions and talents of the middle class, I say.

Anonymous is directed by Roland Emmerich and narrated by Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi;  both are proponents and supporters of the Oxfordian Theory.  They have not only incorporated elements of that ideology, but of the theory  that Elizabeth the I was not the “Virgin” queen of legend.  How these two connect provides a racy jolt to the film’s story, giving a ludicrous but bold justification for how such a vast conspiracy originated and was carried out.

At the center of it all, Anonymous is the ultimate propaganda film for a fascinating, but flawed conspiracy theory. It’s best that you leave all you know about history and biography at the theater door.  Some of what Anonymous proposes is beyond ridiculous in both history and character, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining.  It might be easier to swallow for purists if the opening title card simply read: “What IF...”.  It’s a blasphemous, slightly naughty bedtime story meant only for wayward and fringe-element historians and lovers of literature.  Once Upon A Time, there was a boy named Edward and a scary witch named Elizabeth I…Nevertheless,  it is an engrossing and well-acted film that is quite a departure for a director known mostly for post-apocalyptic action movies.

Joely Richardson as the younger Elizabeth I (with her court followers)

The heart of the film lies in actor Rhys Ifans’s stunning performance as the Earl of Oxford.  Ifans isn’t a classically handsome actor, yet he commands the audience’s attention with a sly charisma, showing the power of the Earl’s creative and consuming genius.  Here is a man torn between duty, honor and love of the written word.  He’s bound to a world that lives and breathes intrigue and deception.  He is trapped by the conventions of his time and by a political machine much stronger and more skilled than he is.  Oxford admits he is a failure as a politician, but in one of the film’s most successful scenes, he tries to explain to his haggard wife why he can’t “keep in line”.  He likens the need to write to an obsession; the voices call to him and override all else.

The movie traces the journey of Oxford from Mozart-like literary prodigy to determined but hampered power player.  Along the way, he must live by the creed of the formidable Elizabeth I (played in a genius of casting in middle age by Joely Richardson, and in decline by her mother Vanessa Redgrave) and her Machiavellian advisers,  the father and son team of William and Robert Cecil.  Elizabeth I was known for collecting handsome and charismatic men around her like butterflies under glass, and the Earl of Oxford was one such fellow, along with other historical personages such as Walter Raleigh and the ill-fated Robert, Earl of Essex.  It is the Earl of Essex (along with his best bud the Earl of Southampton) and his influence over the Queen that provides much of the conflict in the political aspects of the film.

The rest of the movie flits back and forth between Ifans’s Oxford and his battles both internal and external, and the buffoonery that is forced upon poor Rafe Spall, who is stuck portraying the “patsy” of this tale:  the much maligned Shakespeare, who must not-so- humbly take credit for another man’s work.  This character comes off quite obviously as a grating and melodramatic fool, a sharp contrast to Ifans’s smooth and sage Oxford.  Perhaps this “contrast” is a bit overdone to propel the main plot.  It would have been more interesting to make the two men (Shakespeare and Oxford) more alike; as it is, most of the scenes with Spall as Shakespeare fade into a loud stereotype that assumes most actors of the time had limited talent and ego to spare.  Stratfordians (who believe Shakespeare was the real deal) everywhere will roll their eyes.

the unfortunate Rafe Spall as Shakespeare

Also mixed up in the madness of court intrigue and on and off stage drama is the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s.   He is Oxford’s first choice to provide the cover for his plays, but Jonson is too determined and too legitimately talented to agree to such a prospect.  Jonson rides into the fray with righteous indignation and smolder to spare, but actor Sebastian Armesto cannot keep up with Ifans’s mesmerizing presence.  The absence of  Ifans’s Oxford is felt with every scene in which he does not appear.

The most successful scenes in Anonymous are those that draw from the original words of The Bard himself, showing how captivated his audiences were by his  uncanny grasp of the workings of the  human soul.  Emmerich wisely intersperses the intrigue and meddling of Oxford’s story with appropriate bits of Shakespeare’s best plays; a brave King Henry V gives his St. Crispin’s Day speech as a mesmerized audience becomes part of the action, a stalwart courtier gasps as Romeo and Juliet first meet,  the hunchbacked Richard III foreshadows the rebellion against the Cecils as the groundlings pelt him with garbage.   Shakespeare knew that to entertain isn’t enough; you must inspire contemplation and action.  As Edward De Vere states early in the film, “All artists have something to say, otherwise they would make shoes.”

Overall, Anonymous is  entertaining not as a historical epic, but as a romantic and disturbed psychological study of the insular worlds of the Elizabethan stage and court.   Ifans, Redgrave, and Richardson are all worth watching, and CGI’d  Renaissance England has never looked more foggy, dark and inspiring. Come to Anonymous  with an open mind and a love of controversy and the power of the written word, and you will not walk away disappointed.

Overall Grade: B –

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