Review: 'Anonymous' beats up on the Bard

Shakespeare debate stirs fiery film

Author: Michelle Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: Nov 04 2011 01:50:36 PM EDT   Updated On: Dec 21 2011 04:15:11 PM EST
Anonymous movie image

There's a rather famous book, which has been around for centuries, that has always been the subject of debate. Was it written by some otherworldly entity speaking through humankind or the craftsmanship of a group of mortals who devised a fiction?

We'll never know, will we? And so it goes for the works of William Shakespeare. Scholars and writers from Sigmund Freud to Mark Twain (count Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Orson Welles, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Sir John Gielgud in the group, too) have speculated that Shakespeare was not the real author of the works. Many believe that it was a collective group of writers, but other theorists point to a single writer, other than Shakespeare, who may have had a reason for staying in the shadows.

This is where "Anonymous" takes it pen -- or shall we say quill -- in hand. Screenwriter John Orloff and director Roland Emmerich present to audiences that the true author was Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who was the genius behind "The Merchant of Venice," "King Lear," "Henry V," and "Romeo and Juliet," along with 33 other plays and 154 sonnets, to be exact.

But there's more to this story than just an Earl who has a love for whiling away his hours creating poetry and verse in an age where such writing is considered the devil's work. There's the notion that the public works could be used as covert political messages to sway the masses' loyalty for or against those in positions of power during volatile times in Elizabethan England.

It is intriguing that Emmerich, best known for epic blockbusters "Independence Day," "2012" and "The Day After Tomorrow," would get behind a story that seems so far removed from his 20 years of work in Hollywood, but it was a personal quest after Orloff told him about the script he was toying with on and off for a few years. Emmerich immediately believed that the drama had all the makings perfect for his next movie -- murder, sex, lies and betrayal.

Turns out, he was right. "Anonymous" spins the story of Shakespeare in doubt, but also delves into what went on inside Queen Elizabeth's castle during the late 16th and early 17th century: Political jockeying over who would succeed the Queen upon her death, stories of tawdry affairs, children tucked away after being born out of wedlock, and other scandals.

The drawback of this intrigue is that with all the interweaving of stories, the 130-minute film can be difficult to follow. Yet it cannot help but command attention. The cast is a veritable Who's Who of British theater, including Rhys Ifans (Hugh Grant's dopey roommate Spike in "Notting Hill") who inhabits the role of the discontented Earl of Oxford. Vanessa Redgrave was born to play the Queen (however, the very gray teeth they've implanted in her character's mouth are annoyingly distracting). As the young Queen, Redgrave's daughter, Joely Richardson, is the perfect casting choice. Not only is she a genetic ringer for the elder Elizabeth, but Richardson's flirtatious Liz shows depth, going from coquettish to shrew in seconds flat, showing us not quite the legend known as the "virgin queen."

Sure to be on the cover of every teen heartthrob magazine is Jamie Campbell Bower, who is an absolute charmer as the Young Oxford. Rafe Spall lays on the buffoonery rather thick as William Shakespeare -- coupled with how the part is written and Spall's overacting, Shakespeare's authentic self, at least in this film, doesn't have a chance.

Oxford's choice of who will get his plays produced to influence succession to the throne, in addition to many other spears he has to throw, is Renaissance dramatist Ben Jonson, played by Sebastian Armesto. Despite his overly teary dramatization during one crucial death scene, the complete earnestness he brings to Johnson continually helps to propel the plot.

Of course, every Elizabethan drama has a villain. Edward Hogg stars as the hunchbacked Robert Cecil, conniving and power hungry. Cecil is thought to have been immortalized by the Earl of Oxford in the play "Richard III," where there are rather overt resemblances to the diminutive Cecil.

Did he or didn't he, that is the question? Whether to see this movie in the theater or wait for it to come out on DVD is vexing. This scribe recommends that you see it in on the big screen as Emmerich has created an Elizabethan England that's a feast for the eyes and a tale that makes mincemeat out of the legend of The Bard.