Anonymous Just Another Historic Mishmash
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2011 31 Oct
DVD Release Date: February 7, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: October 28, 2011 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content)
Run Time: 130 min.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Actors: Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewliss, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Derek Jacobi
Do you know your British royal history? Do you know your Shakespeare? If not, give up hope here and now of understanding Anonymous, the new Roland Emmerich-directed (Independence Day, 2012) film written by John Orloff (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole) positing that Shakespeare didn’t write all those plays we attribute to him.
Then again, even Anglophiles might get lost in this convoluted historical drama that thinks it’s clever but is mainly just overheated and a bit of a trial to sit through. It’s also full of cheap shots against Puritans and Catholics, leaving viewers with little edification and much to find distasteful, if not preposterous.
Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi (The King's Speech), gets one of the film’s classiest roles, book-ending the tale with a present-day introduction and a few closing remarks delivered with more Shakespearean passion than most of the rest of the cast combined. The two notable exceptions are Rhys Ifans (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and the always-worth-watching Vanessa Redgrave (Cars 2) as the aging Queen Elizabeth I.
The film shifts to its Elizabethan setting with a scene of playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) hiding from authorities intent on smoking him out and finding out what he knows about the plays of Will Shakespeare. In this story, Shakespeare is an illiterate actor (Rafe Spall, One Day) who, after a successful performance of a play actually written by de Vere but without any attribution, basks in the audience’s warm glow by taking a bow and claiming to be the playwright. From that point on, he works with Johnson and de Vere to preserve the ruse, despite suspicions that the doltish actor could never have authored the witty and, as time goes on, increasingly political plays attributed to him.
Raised in a Puritan home that frowned upon theater, de Vere has had no choice but to pursue his passion for play writing over the years. “The voices come to me. . . . Only when I put them to parchment . . . am I at peace,” de Vere, now as a grown man and an earl, explains. He writes plays that he passes along to Johnson, who sees to it that the plays find an audience, albeit with no author’s name to them.
The young de Vere (Jamie Campbell Bower, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) was also the youthful lover of Elizabeth (played as a young woman by Joely Richardson), a queen who loves theater and who, despite her reputation as a virgin, loved lots of men. Her relationship with de Vere and others leads to controversy over who’s in line to take the throne next. The palace intrigue ensnares the earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), the earl of Essex (Sam Reid), and William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg), among others.
The characters keep piling up in Anonymous, so much so that we never get to know the protagonists as well as we’d like. An early sign of problems: The movie has barely begun before we get a “Five Years Earlier” flashback, to be followed shortly thereafter by a “Forty Years Earlier” stretch! De Vere looks quite different across the ages, while Richardson and Redgrave have the advantage of being real-life mother and daughter, making it easier for the audience to recognize Elizabeth in the film’s younger and older depictions of the queen. Figuring out who de Vere is across time, or who the myriad other players in this drama might be, is nigh on impossible. One wishes the players had all worn nametags.
Nicely filmed by Anna Foerster (10,000 B.C.), Anonymous is a pleasure to look at but a pain to keep up with. Perhaps those who enjoy speculation about the historical Shakespeare or who relish royal scandals will have fun piecing together this puzzling plot. Everyone else will be happy when this inconsequential story fades to a footnote in cinematic history. It’s more likely than not that viewers will end up feeling more certain about the conventional wisdom that Shakespeare wrote his plays than they will be persuaded by this film to embrace an alternative history.
Anonymous leaves us wondering, once again, why Hollywood has invested so much money and talent in a product at once so trifling yet hostile toward faith and tradition. If this is the best challenge they can muster, maybe the answer for future screenwriters and creative talent is to let the power of historical storytelling speak for itself. As fact-based films such as Of Gods and Men have shown this year, historical events sometimes can be the basis for stories more powerful than any fictional narrative.
- Language/Profanity: "As-", "bastard."
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Shakespeare drinks; other scenes of drinking in group settings.
- Sex/Nudity: De Vere sleeps with Elizabeth; they’re shown by the fire, they rise, but no nudity is shown beyond a bare male chest and the top of backside, which is otherwise covered; lovers shown having sex under the sheets; a man’s backside seen while having sex with a prostitute; accusation of incest.
- Violence/Crime: A theater is burned to the ground; man is struck in the face; a man is stabbed; a dead body shown, with some blood coming from his mouth; men are shot; torture scene.
- Religion: Puritan head of household tells offspring that theater is a form of idolatry and that there’s no place for art in his home; a character says that if plays are unholy, she hopes she doesn’t find salvation until later in life; Catholic revolt in Ireland; a man’s soul is said to hang in the balance; a reference to God’s gifts of “cunning and ruthlessness”; a man says God requires his help; a funeral scene.
Marriage: A wedding scene; marital unfaithfulness depicted; talk of Elizabeth’s many “bastard” children.
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