Sony // 2011 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // February 15th, 2012
Was Shakespeare a fraud?
William Shakespeare died in Stratford in 1616. Seven years later, two of his colleagues published the First Folio, containing 36 plays. Much wackiness ensued in England over the next several decades, but the end of the seventeenth century saw two notable developments: 1) Shakespeare became hailed as a national treasure, and 2) Biography became a popular literary form. A biography of Shakespeare should have been the inevitable result, but the hoard of biographers who set themselves the task found...well, next to nothing. Shakespeare didn't leave a much of a paper trail beyond a couple of legal documents, including a lawsuit in which he sued a neighbor to recover a debt. That last sat poorly with those who had placed Shakespeare on a very high pedestal; how could the man who penned "The quality of mercy is not strained" In The Merchant of Venice behave like such a Shylock? After having matters further confused by a series of fake biographies, fake correspondence, and even some fake "newly discovered works", someone opined that since there was so little direct evidence linking Shakespeare to his work, perhaps someone else wrote them.
That person is, without question, the greatest troll in the annals of western civilization.
These days, there are two major camps in the anti-Stratfordian movement. The Marlovians contend that Christopher Marlowe faked his own death -- he was killed in a bar fight in 1593 -- and re-emerged as Shakespeare (He may also even now be on a tropical island with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe). The Oxfordians believe that the man behind the curtain was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Columbia Pictures now brings before the court Anonymous, a movie based on the premise that Shakespeare was not who he seemed to be.
It is the twilight of the reign of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave, Mission: Impossible; in flashbacks, the younger Elizabeth is played by her daughter Joely Richardson, The Patriot). Having no legitimate heirs, Elizabeth has at length decided to name as her successor King James VI of Scotland -- the son of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Some of the more established nobility isn't thrilled with the idea of a Scotsman on the throne of England, particularly since his mother Mary was a Catholic. At the same time, with the War of the Roses still a fairly recent memory, everyone wants to avoid another dynastic civil war. In this tense time, the Earl of Essex (Sebastian Reid), whom some suspect is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth, is angling for the crown, supported by the young Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel).
One afternoon, Edward deVere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill; the younger Oxford is played by Jaimie Campbell Bower, Camelot) and the Wriothesley attend a play, at which de Vere is struck by the power that the drama has over the audience. He realizes that he can use plays to shape public opinion in such a way that Essex can ascend to the throne without bloodshed. The only problem is that no one can know he had anything to do with it. He enlists struggling poet Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto, Marie Antoinette) to present the plays as his own, but at the first public performance of Henry V, Johnson is a little slow in stepping forward to claim authorship, and one of the actors seizes the moment and claims authorship for himself -- a particularly annoying lout named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). As de Vere's plays become more and more popular, he must contend with Shakespeare's greed, as well as the machinations of William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis, DragonHeart, and Edward Hogg, Isle of Dogs, respectively), Elizabeth's spymasters, who are intent to see James on the throne.
As events play out over several years, de Vere finds out that political drama is a high stakes business -- and that he has a lot more to lose than just his life.
With Anonymous director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla) and writer John Orloff don't try to make a case for Oxford. Instead, they ask: If Oxford did write the plays, how did they end up attributed to this Shakespeare guy? That's not splitting hairs -- it's a key distinction, and it's one of several reasons that Anonymous is both an engaging political thriller and a celebration of William Shakespeare (the actual Shakespeare, not Edward de Vere). It lets them play fast and loose with the facts for dramatic effect (for instance, they have de Vere writing A Midsummer Night's Dream in his youth, around 1560-65, when the play, based on references to other works, was likely written ~1595). In fact, the movie plays out much like a Shakespearean play, with twists, turns, plot, counterplots, and revelations galore -- they even go so far as to have a prologue/epilogue for the play, performed in the present by famed Shakespearean (and noted Oxfordian) Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius). Setting history aside, the story works.
The performances are, for the most part, good. Ifans does a good enough job, but the shifting timelines force him to play things close to the vest lest he inadvertently reveal some last minute secrets. Others aren't as restricted though. Vanessa Redgrave flings herself into the role of Elizabeth -- near death, uncertain, and with faculties failing in one timeline, more assured and willful in an earlier one. But the one who stands out most is Sebastian Armesto's Ben Jonson. A man with no small talent, not only must he help another poet's work to eclipse his own, but he must also watch a less talented (in this move, at least) artist get the credit. His is the character we sympathize with the most.
While the question of historical accuracy is problematic (see the rebuttal), it doesn't diminish the movie's technical accomplishments; because of the limited budget, much of Tudor England was created using CGI -- including some of the interiors; the movie has a great look, particularly the interiors, which are frequently shot by candlelight. That look is captured well on the disc; while there are times when the background has a two-dimensional look, that is likely a function of the CGI rather than the video mastering. The audio is good as well; the movie doesn't require an aggressive sound mix, but crowd noises are particularly well imaged, whether in a theater or in a crowded tavern. The extras are a mixed bag. There is a featurette examining the authorship question -- it's a wee bit slanted towards Oxford, but that's to be expected. There are three deleted scenes that don't really add anything -- interestingly, there are snippets of other deleted scenes in the authorship featurette that look far more interesting. Finally, Emmerich and Orloff provide a commentary track that is good, but not great -- they spend a little too much time patting each other on the back. It's astounding that there was no making-of featurette -- there were very few physical sets, almost all of Tudor England was created with CGI, and it's always interesting to hear how actors approach playing historical figures.
Anonymous goes a little over the top in its characterizations -- de Vere is too idealized, the Cecil's are too scheming and villainous, and Shakespeare himself too buffoonish. The relatively large number of characters prevents much in the way of development, and the plot and the shifting time frames get needlessly convoluted at times, to the point where one suspects that the movie's a narrative shell game designed to keep viewers from thinking too hard on the authorship question itself, or on the historical inaccuracies. And by "inaccuracies", I don't mean authorship-related issues, I mean things that are flat out wrong, such as suggesting that Shakespeare slit Christopher Marlowe's throat in a dark alley when it is a documented fact that he was killed in a tavern in front of multiple witnesses. The easy answer is to simply say, well, it's just a movie, but that approach is more than just a little disingenuous. As de Vere notes, "all art is politics", and if that's true, it's as true about movies as it is about drama, particularly a movie presenting such a highly fictionalized version of history.
Anonymous aspires to be the Shakespearean equivalent of JFK, and if Emmerich and Orloff had hewn a little closer to the actual facts, they might have pulled it off. However, the license taken with historical events transforms the story of Edward de Vere into more of an alternate history; put it another way, at some point, "dramatic license" becomes "pulling shit out of your ass". For all the movie's narrative prowess, the fact is that it is so committed to presenting Edward de Vere as the unquestioned author of Shakespeare's plays that it ultimately becomes little more than slickly-produced propaganda.
I don't for a minute believe that de Vere actually wrote the plays; this film presents a romantic fantasy in which that is the truth, but it is just that -- a fantasy, hopelessly at odds with the facts. Despite that, I couldn't help but feel sorry for de Vere as he watches his greatest creations torn away from him. To that end, Anonymous is an effective enough movie; unfortunately, it's effective enough that it might get people to accept the premise that de Vere wrote Shakespeare's plays even though it doesn't offer much evidence to that effect.
Guilty of intellectual dishonesty.
Review content copyright © 2012 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site
* James Shapiro Op-Ed
* John Orloff Interview