By Gary Murray
Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Sebastian Armesto and Rafe Spall
Written by John Orloff
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Running time 130 min
MPAA Rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Arguably, William Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time. His 37 plays and many sonnets are considered some of the most brilliant expressions of humanity that have ever been put on paper. He was not an educated man but an actor of low stature. This has always brought the question of authorship. Did Shakespeare actually write those works or were they done by another? The new film Anonymous takes on a fictional answer to that question.
The film opens with an actor rushing to get to a stage on time. The play he is doing is Anonymous. As he begins to revel in telling the tale, the audience is transported back into the days of the Bard. A playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is running away from palace guards. He hides a series of manuscripts in the bottom of a theater space as the guards alight the building. Taken back for interrogation, he tells the powers that be that all of the writings are gone in the fire.
The film jumps from different points of time. We see Edward De Vere, the future Earl of Oxford as a child, writing his own works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the delight of the Queen, Elizabeth I. The man is obsessed with the theater, a pursuit of the commoners not for the ruling class. But, the fire burns long and bright in this little body.
There are scenes of Edward as a strapping young buck full of ardor and wanting. As he has changed from a talented young boy to an impassioned young man, he stirs something inside his queen. Attending the theater as an even older man, he noticed that the spoken word can bring the audience to both tears and terror. Edward proposed to Jonson to take authorship of his play but Jonson refuses. A bit player in the troop William Shakespeare jumps on stage when the audience clamors ‘Author’. Thus begins the deception.
The movie Anonymous is not so much about the controversy of the authorship of the works of The Bard as it is about the passions that drive the creative. We experience how the creative process drives a man, forsaking everything else. The film plays against the backdrop of the feud between Mary and Elizabeth for both the monarchy and the religious nature of the country. This also takes into the mix Essex Rebellion against the Crown. Also thrown into this is a major twist of a personal nature.
At times the film is confusing. With all the jumping in time, it almost seems purposefully mystifying. One does not have to be a student of Tudor History to understand all the details of the ‘who and the what’, but it certainly would help in the understanding.
The costumes and sets are some of the most impressive seen in 2011. The experience of Anonymous is breathtaking in scope with a richness one seldom sees on the screen. Sweeping vistas of London fill just about every inch of the frame. This is a beautiful film to take in.
Of all the leads, I found Vanessa Redgrave the most lacking as Queen Elizabeth I. This role has been done by so many famous actresses in so many different interpretations; I found this version of the portrayal lacking. The House of Tudor is full of larger than life characters and Redgrave just didn’t fit the bill.
Very much on the plus side was Rafe Spall as young William Shakespeare. His flippant attitude is a winning combination of whimsy and clueless ness. There is this sparkle in his eye that just begs one to be a part of his existence.
Different actors play Edward in different parts of his life. They look so dissimilar that one loses the suspension of belief as these different people play the same man. Rhys Ifans plays the bulk of the role, showing Edward as the tortured man who cannot control the demons that haunt his mind, giving life to characters. He is a man of conviction and vanity, both of which do him in at the finish.
The film is a fiction, as all films are. It is an interesting idea with some major license of fantasy over fact. But, it is also an entertaining diversion. Anonymous may be a cock and bull tale or the facts of history, one will never truly know. It makes an interesting supposition.