Directed by:Roland Emmerich
Part florid melodrama and part high camp, this Elizabethan literary mystery purports to uncover the real name of England’s most celebrated playwright - - and in doing so it offers audiences perhaps the best piece of cinematic escapism in 2011. Director Roland Emmerich, Hollywood’s most prolific source of doomsday epics (Independence Day, Godzilla, 2012) turns his penchant for thunderous overstatement to the question of who really wrote the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare. Working from a screenplay by John Orloff (A Mighty Heart), which sacrifices historical accuracy in favor of lubricious supposition, Anonymous creates a world of political treachery, sexual license and artistic ghostwriting so preposterous the result becomes a guilty pleasure, like an episode from The Kardashians. My advice? Settle back, swallow the film’s conceits and relish it’s gossipy trashing of everything we’ve come to believe about The Bard and the era in which he lived.
Emmerich begins his historical hatchet job with a wonderful speech to a contemporary audience delivered by the famed actor Derek Jacobi, who assures us that what we’re about to learn will finally fill gaps in what is known of Shakespeare’s life and explain inconsistences that have vexed historians of his era. With Jacobi’s mellifluous voice lingering on the soundtrack, the audience is transported back to The Globe Theater, set afire by the authorities who seek to suppress what they see as seditious artistry that threatens Queen Elizabeth’s sovereignty. And how do performances of works such as Macbeth and Richard the Third challenge the queen? In Emmerich’s historical gloss, these dramas cunningly attack William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser, who’s manipulating the issue of succession to secure the aging queen’s crown for King James of Scotland. This would deny The Earl of Essex a kingdom generally thought to be rightfully his, and opposing Cecil, Essex comes to rely on the prestige and support of The Earl of Southampton, whom the screenplay identifies as the bastard son of The Earl of Oxford and Elizabeth herself.
In a series of frequently bewildering but fast-paced flashbacks, Oxford emerges as a gifted man of letters and early companion in Elizabeth’s bed who is manipulated into a loveless marriage to Cecil’s only daughter. Embittered and cut off from Elizabeth’s affections by the manipulative Cecil, Oxford pens a series of plays designed to undermine his father-in-law’s power and employs Will Shakespeare to produce them under his own name. Their success turns Shakespeare into a national treasure, much to the displeasure of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson, who struggle to gain an equivalent reception for their literary works. When a production of Richard the Third creates a furor over Cecil’s tenure in office, Shakespeare’s works are suppressed and Oxford reduced to a life of penury and the suppression of his name as the true author of everything attributed to the man from Stratford-on-Avon who has come down to us as the nominal author.
To his credit, Emmerich delivers this hogwash with a bracing mixture of high camp and skillfully crafted performances from his British cast. Vanessa Redgrave vamps as an aged and addled Elizabeth whose attention-span runs about half the length of a T.V. commercial. Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson however, plays Elizabeth as a young and vibrant queen, capturing the iron-willed determination required to outlast those who tried to manipulate her on the way to the crown. Rhys Ifans (remember Hugh Grant’s goofy roommate in Notting Hill?) portrays Oxford as a reticent snob willing to manipulate others as ruthlessly as Cecil, (David Thewlis) while the latter’s icy yet obsequious demeanor matches his opponents in calculated wickedness. Both performances are straightforward and serious, in contrast to the those offered on behalf of Shakespeare, Marlow and Jonson; the first is pictured as a doofus, the second as a conniving manipulator and the last as a desperate, unwashed fool manipulated by his betters.
Audiences can be forgiven for feeling a bit whip-sawed by the dizzying swings in mood and elaborately complex flashbacks employed here - - but if you can develop a willing suspension of disbelief and simply allow the storyline to carry you along, Anonoymous will effortlessly propel you to Derek Jacobi’s damming coda which seeks to drive a literary coffin nail into Shakespeare’s credibility. Along the way, you’ll be witness to splendid recreations of 17th century England and meet a host of characters as improbably fascinating as any you’re likely to meet in the movies this year.
The Verdict? As substantive as cotton-candy - - and just as delicious.
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