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The Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is a talented playwright whose position
forces him to publicly abandon his endeavors. He seeks to sign over his
plays and sonnets to Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), but that's easier
said than done. When William Shakespeare takes credit (Rafe Spall),
that's the least of concerns as the words of Edward affect the
Rhys Ifans is an unrecognizable powerhouse, and though the rest of the cast fairs well, he shines. As does director Roland Emmerich, who uses every trick at his disposal to make a highly sophisticated drama littered with elaborate costumes and set decoration to be admired.
The theatre experience is very well represented in Anonymous, with the narrator barely making the curtain. Believe it or not but this does actually happen and there are actors who specialize in. The workings of the theatre coincide with the events described and eventually merge. In the time of Edward, the Globe is shown with spectacular accuracy and the familiar faces of the troupe appear across plays.
The future of England is put at stake as the insight into Edward's inspiration is penned on a relationship with Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave and in younger form Joely Richardson). These secrets showcase the power of words to win over love and country.
Is it cheating to inject stolen verse into a screenplay? To some extent yes. We're talking about a movie that lifts words, then says they came from a thief. A bit of a paradox if anything. Similarly, it would be silly for J.J. Abrams to direct a movie that's filled with scenes from every Steven Spielberg film, yet that happened with Super 8.
If Anonymous has a fault, it would be in jerking around the audience. The movie starts with an inventive use of a framing device, and quite appropriately in a theatre. We go back and Ben Johnson is jailed, only for us to go back 5 years to see him getting jailed. Then we go back another 40 and when we next see Johnson he's being set free. So in which time is he released? Thankfully Anonymous is long enough to allow an audience to gain bearings.
Anonymous is Emmerich's masterpiece, a radical far from his usual environmental apocalypse works. There could be a stigma surrounding the subject, which will be viewed as blasphemy by many. I'd like to reassure you that most popular cinema is an act of fiction. Shakespeare isn't available to rebut, and most moviegoers are not concerned with historical accuracy so long as the story is compelling and filled with drama, which Anonymous delivers.
About 300 years after the publication of the first collected works of
Shakespeare, the so-called First Folio (1623), a schoolmaster named J.
Thomas Looney (pronounced "loanee") facilitated his students in
readings of the Shakespeare plays, particularly "the Merchant of
Venice". Over the years while watching the plays, hearing their
rhetoric, and absorbing this remarkable voice whose Elizabethan
presence is still revered and studied today, Looney became convinced
the man from Stratford who is attributed to having written the plays
(the Orthodox View), was not the true author. He came to believe the
name "William Shakespeare" which appeared on two published poems, the
later quartos and the First Folio was in reality a pseudonym for
someone else, possibly a nobleman. Previously, those who questioned the
Orthodox View, sometimes called Anti-Stratfordians, had proposed others
of the Elizebethan Age, such as Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher
Marlowe, but Looney was convinced the true author was someone never
before put forth since Shakespearian scholarship began in the 18th
century. Shakespeare has and still does remain shrouded in mystery.
Because Shakespeare biographical detail has been sketchy at best, Looney developed a profile similar to those used by detectives to paint a picture of his candidate, based on elements in the plays. He determined the writer was a nobleman, a Falconer, possibly sympathetic to the Lancastrian side of the Wars of the Roses, and someone who loved Italy and Italian culture. And, most important of all, that he was a poet who possibly had written poems and/or plays under his own name before going under the name of William Shakespeare. After finding a number of primary sources at the British Library, he came up with his findings. Looney proposed a somewhat forgotten nobleman named Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as being the true identity of the poet/playwright William Shakespeare in a book called simply "Shakespeare Identified".
"Anonymous" is a film based on Looney's original notion that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, penned the plays which would become the greatest literary canon of the English language. The events surrounding the plays, their performances, Oxford's conscious willingness to stay behind the scenes, and the attribution of the plays to the man from Stratford, a businessman who had little or no experience in theatre, are all dramatized in a period film which takes you back to the world of the Elizabethan Stage. One of the best aspects of "Anonymous" is how it relates the plays to political rhetoric of the period. In recent years, Shakespearian scholars have proposed that many figures of the Elizabethan Court were satirized in the plays, such as William Cecil and his son Robert Cecil. The links between the plays and contemporary politics are brought to the fore much more directly than in "Shakespeare in Love".
Character actor Rhys Ifans offers an Oscar-caliber performance as the man who some believe was the real Shakespeare. Ifans finds that delicate balance between the remarkable artist and the troubled nobleman who could not reconcile the two worlds of his life. If Shakespeare was in fact a nobleman who went under a pseudonym, many of the events portrayed in "Anonymous" are plausible. Unlike today, playwrights and poets lived on the periphery of society, and a nobleman of the rank of Oxford writing plays containing charged political rhetoric would have been scandalous, hence the Shakespeare-Oxford theory.
The hero of the movie is actually his colleague Ben Johnson, the Elizabethan playwright who has always dwelt under the shadow of Shakespeare, especially in modern times. Johnson would have been the greatest playwright of his age if Shakespeare had not been writing. In this story, he becomes the guardian of the Shakespeare plays, and supposedly the man who saves the canon for posterity. Johnson in fact wrote the preface to the First Folio of 1623. If there had been a cover-up of Shakespeare's true identity, Johnson would have known.
While the film bases many of its embellishments on facts known about Edward de Vere, the film does take a few rather implausible historical licenses, not unlike Amadeus which appeared about 25 years ago. Edward de Vere may have flirted with Queen Elizabeth when he was younger, but whether they bore a child does seem quite fantastic. Later in the film, an extraordinary truth about Oxford's own heritage is revealed. However, films have to tell a story, and some licenses are made in order the story remain interesting and compelling. Shakespeare in many of his plays bent history to fulfill his dramatic goals and theatrical visions.
Many Shakespeare enthusiasts not only dismiss the Oxfordian argument but do not approve of the subject altogether. Some Stratfordians' view is that there is no "authorship question" and that any attempt to discredit the man from Stratford does a disservice to Shakespare. I think "Anonymous" is not so much about changing minds but about bringing the question out into the open. Regardless on which side of the fence you may be, there are a lot of questions concerning the life of Shakespeare. Answers to mundane questions, such as primary sources concerning his composing, are strangely absent. No one seems to have mentioned Stratford being any kind of a poet, playwright or actor in Stratford. However, as shown in the film, primary source evidence survives which speaks of Edward de Vere as an adolescent putting on a short play for the young Queen Elizabeth.
So the film brings us back to the fundamental question: did Oxford write the Shakespeare Canon or was it the man from Stratford? Primary source evidence is sparse, and documents which could have shed light on this problem may have perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666. In short, we may never know. But Oxford's star is on the rise, and in years to come, this may be the first film to acknowledge there is indeed a question. Whether it has been answered is up to each viewer.
First thing to point out. When going to watch this movie I had no
intention whatsoever to judge it on its historical accuracy. I simply
did not and do not care. If you want a documentary on Elizabethan times
then clearly you shouldn't be watching this particular film.
If, on the other hand, you want a perfectly entertaining and interesting way to spend a couple of hours then you should go and see it. I thought the story was engaging and original (if, like myself, you're not a pretentious academic). The acting was, on the whole, very accomplished. In particular, I thought Rhys Ifans gave a brilliant performance as De Vere and was perfect for the role. I did find Rafe Spall pretty annoying as Shakespeare, but perhaps I should give him the benefit of the doubt as this was probably the aim of the character.
With regards to the historical rewrite then surely if people are interested in what 'Anonymous' suggests they'll try to find out more about the subject in order to make their own mind up. Nothing wrong with that. And those taking Hollywood's version of history at face value are pretty much beyond help anyway.
Certainly one of the most memorable movies i've seen (for the right reasons) this year.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"I, once gone, to all the world must die." William Shakespeare,
Actor George Dillon has said, "The purpose of drama is to challenge people and to make people see things slightly differently." The challenge is laid down in stunning fashion by German director Roland Emmerich in his latest work, Anonymous, one of the best films of the year. Focusing on two of the most important events of the Elizabethan age: the Essex Rebellion of 1601 and the succession to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I, the film supports the premise that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a prominent aristocrat and court insider, was the real author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare, plays and poems of romance, tragic political intrigue, and comedy that contain such a compelling beauty and searing intensity that, after 400 years, still reach directly into our hearts and remain there forever.
Described as a "political thriller", Anonymous creates an atmosphere of foreboding and intrigue that, like many films of the genre, begins with a jumble of names, images, and flashbacks that challenge us to sort it all out. We are not certain of anything, but Emmerich invites us, in the words of Diane Ackerman "to groom our curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sunstruck hills." Steering us through the maze of Tudor history, the film makes credible the startling events of the time, providing an authentic recreation of London in the 16th century with its crowded theaters and raucous audience, cluttered streets, and court royalty decked out in fine jewels.
Though some may point out historical inaccuracies in the film, Emmerich, citing Shakespeare in Love as an example, says that the film contains an "emotional truth" rather than a literal one because "the drama is the primary concern." He need not have had concern on that aspect. Through Emmerich's direction, the writing of John Orloff, the cinematography of Anna Foerster, and the superlative performance of an all British cast including Oscar-worthy performances by Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I and Rhys Ifans as Oxford, Anonymous succeeds both as an authentic drama and a plausible explanation for many of the problems surrounding the authorship question. While the film may lack a certain depth of characterization, it more than makes up for it with style, spectacle, and an involving story.
To some, the film may be skating on narrative thin ice, Emmerich, however, told an interviewer that "if we provoke, let's provoke all the way," and provoke he does. According to Anonymous, de Vere, in addition to being Shakespeare, was also the illegitimate son of the Queen and, in 1573, the father of a son with Elizabeth, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel). Emmerich handles the subject of incest with great taste, with neither the "Virgin Queen" nor Oxford knowing the truth until close to the end of their lives. After a brief prologue by actor Sir Derek Jacobi, the film begins with the arrest of playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armento) by faceless men in knight's armor in the middle of a theatrical performance.
The author of the play is a well-known writer who, though he is soon released, is taken to the Tower and accused of sedition and slandering the State by the mere act of authoring a play, the mark of a totalitarian society reflecting a growing disdain for the arts. The film then flashes back five years, then forty years, as we become acquainted with the young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower), taught by highly educated tutors with access to a vast library in the home of William Cecil (David Thewlis), where he was brought up as a ward of the court after his father's death. We also witness his marriage to a teenage Anne Cecil (Amy Kwolek), daughter of William, a marriage that never produced any lasting satisfaction for either party.
As we return to present time, Oxford is forced to hide his identity because of the biting satire of his plays that lampoon some of the more prominent members of the court, and also as a result of a political arrangement that becomes clearer later in the film. His initial choice to front for him is the same Ben Jonson but Jonson refuses, passing the mantle to Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), an actor for the Lord Chamberlain's Men who seizes the opportunity. In a superbly comic performance, Spall portrays Will as an illiterate money-grubber who can barely speak coherently but is willing to sell his name to Oxford at a premium cost. The heart of the plot, however, focuses on the attempt to seize power from Cecil's son Robert, an episode that is known to history as The Essex Rebellion of 1601.
This insurrection, led by Robert Devereaux, the Second Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) results in his beheading and the imprisonment of Southampton who is sent to the Tower awaiting certain death. Oxford's attempt to persuade Elizabeth to save their son results in a political deal that makes us privy to why Oxford was never able to reveal his authorship of the Shakespeare canon. While some critics may proclaim the movie a moment of singularity that indicates the end of the world as we know it (even before 2012), Anonymous may have the opposite effect, opening the subject to a wider audience who may be able to view Shakespeare and his times from a totally new perspective.
In Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," Jubal said we're prisoners of our early indoctrinations, "for it is hard, very nearly impossible, to shake off one's earliest training." If my intuition is correct, the prison gates will soon be swinging wide open, and the shaking will begin in earnest. As Victor Hugo said, "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."
These days, the term "Anonymous" conjures up visions of unknown
activists trying to influence history from the wings. They write
things, and that writing changes society. In his film of the same name,
director Roland Emmerich seems to be suggesting that this idea is not
exactly new, and that the plays and poems attributed to William
Shakespeare were essentially motivated by the same desire. He takes the
age-old mystery of "Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" and turns it
into a political thriller.
If it's difficult for you to imagine a historical costume drama done by the director of "Universal Soldier," "Stargate," "Independence Day," "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012," you are not alone. :-) I suspected that the screenplay (by John Orloff) came first, and that Emmerich discovered it and became enamored of it, and a quick trip to the IMDb verifies that this intuition was correct. It also informs me that Emmerich, taking advantage of the money he made on the previous films, paid for this whole movie out of his own pocket, so that he could have full control of the film, without interference from any studio. It shows.
It's not a bad movie at all. And this is something I never thought I'd find myself saying about a Roland Emmerich movie. The cast is simply to die for: Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth the elder; her daughter Joely Richardson as Elizabeth the younger; Rafe Spall as Shakespeare (a talentless clod of an actor); Sebastian Arnesto as Ben Johnson (a talented playwright, but not even in the same galaxy of greatness as the author of Shakespeare's plays); David Thewlis as William Cecil; Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil; Derek Jacobi doing the prologue; Jaime Campbell Bower (from "Camelot") as the younger Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; and Rhys Ifans as the older Edward de Vere, and the real author of Shakespeare's work.
As presented, the plot is not at all a scholarly argument for the Earl of Oxford's authorship of these plays. It is instead a clever reimagining of historical events (some treated as loosely as Shakespeare himself treated actual history) to turn the answer to the mystery that scholars argue about into a taut political thriller. In Orloff's/Emmerich's vision, Edward de Vere wrote the plays and published them under someone else's name for no less a reason that to foment revolution, change the course of history, and determine the next king of England.
And damnit, that reimagining kinda worked for me. The sets and costumes are pitch perfect, the performances are good, and the potential is there for a good time to be had by all. Like anything related to Shakespeare, the more you know about him and his work, the better this film will be for you. There are so many asides and in-jokes that I cannot begin to go into them. Orloff really did his research. Except for the part about Edward de Vere having died before at least 10 of Shakespeare's plays were written, that is. But that's just a nitpick, and should not stand in the way of writing a good drama. Those kinds of historical nitpicks did not deter Shakespeare, and they don't deter Orloff and Emmerich. All of them understand that "The play's the thing," and that history doesn't mean diddleysquat compared to that.
Everyone in our theater was so mesmerized by this many-layered plot
that no one even got up to go the bathroom. My head was spinning a bit,
trying to keep up with who was related to whom, but I loved every
minute of it.
And I know the cast is highly pedigreed because I recognized some of the actors in the plays from a live performance of Shakespeare the Old Globe Theater troupe gave at UCLA a few years ago while the Old Globe was being renovated. Annette Bening was in the audience that night, so it was a pretty cool evening all around.
After the movie I was at a restaurant next to the theater and I heard a woman say, "I just saw that Shakespeare movie and I'm in a daze."
Go see it and you will be, too. I think I need to see it a few more times to pick up all the fascinating details.
Greetings again from the darkness. While it is clear that writer John
Orloff and director Roland Emmerich believe that Edward De Vere, The
Earl of Oxford, and not Will Shakespeare, wrote the infamous and iconic
plays we have celebrated for 400 years, my advice is to watch this as a
Hollywood movie and not a docu-drama. Hollywood is at its best when
exaggerating, twisting and dramatizing historic events and figures.
You may be an expert on Shakespeare and even Elizabethan history, but whether you are or whether you are not, my guess is that you will find this to be interesting and thought-provoking. You may agree with the idea that Shakespeare was not the prolific and talented author, but this movie provides one possible alternative ... with no scientific proof or actual documentation. We see Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower portray Edward De Vere as the older and younger version respectively. Both capture his passion for writing and frustration at being unable to live the life for which he was born.
Vanessa Redgrave and her real life daughter Joely Richardson portray Queen Elizabeth at the older and younger stages, and we certainly get a distinctive impression of how "the Virgin Queen" may have been mis-labeled as much as any figure in history. Many lovers and illegitimate children are mentioned and the web of secrecy would have been exhausting, given the other responsibilities of her position.
Rafe Spall portrays Will Shakespeare as what one might call The Village Idiot. The buffoonery we see from this man is an extreme that weakens the case for De Vere, rather than strengthen it. Though talented writer Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) was De Vere's first choice, the lack of morals by the illiterate actor Shakespeare allows him to seize a capitalistic opportunity and soak up the audience love.
The best part of the film is the realistic look and feel of the streets, the Globe Theater and costumes. Rhys Ifans is exceptional in the role of De Vere, and the story itself plays out much like one of Shakespeare's plays. The downside is, I believe most will find the multitude of characters and time-lines and sub-plots to be quite confusing at times. Don't take a bathroom break or you'll miss new babies being born and upheavals being planned.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Roland Emmerich's Anonymous addresses the question of Shakespeare's
identity in this tale of Edward de Vere and his actions in the court of
Queen Elizabeth. The film starts a prologue by the eminent
Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi, and then leads us into a scene with
Ben Johnson running about London, fleeing from the knights of Robert
Cecil while carrying the Complete Works. From there we flash back five
years to the first time Johnson was arrested for authoring a
"seditious" play, while de Vere, Christopher Marlowe and other
luminaries of the London dramatic scene watched. From there, a second
flashback of another 40 years sends us to watch de Vere's youth and his
first encounters with the Cecils and with Queen Elizabeth.
Throughout the film we follow three periods of time: de Vere's youth and his growing love for the Queen; the peak of the Shakespearean arc in London, when de Vere was feeding plays to Shakespeare and involving himself in intrigues of London surrounding the question of Elizabeth's heir; and to a much lesser extent, the actions of Johnson and Cecil in the aftermath of the deaths of Elizabeth and de Vere, and the coronation of King James I. Some have complained that the various swings from one time line to another are confusing, but I found it easy to differentiate between young Edward and young Elizabeth and their much older counterparts.
The main body of the film centers around the contest between de Vere's actions to place the Earl of Essex in the line of succession, and the competing interests of the Cecils (first William, then Robert) to steer the throne to King James of Scotland. Thankfully for the viewer, it is easy to differentiate between the two camps, as Essex and his entourage are all fair-haired, while James and the Cecils are dark-haired.
There will be controversy about this film due to the great liberties it takes with historical facts. John Orloff's screenplay ranges from facts well established in the historical record to some points that are debated by experts with varying points of view and interpretations, to some fictions that are introduced and can only be viewed as flatly false. Who wrote the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare? This is at least a topic for debate. Who killed Christopher Marlowe? This film provides an extremely unlikely answer to this question. Was Elizabeth truly a "Virgin Queen"? A modern viewer might think this to be unlikely (especially considering who her father was) but the number and variety of her children suggested by the film seems extremely unlikely. And then there are facts not in dispute at all that are contradicted by the film (such as the fact that Edward de Vere survived his first wife Anne Cecil de Vere and indeed remarried).
It is important, then, to understand that this film is a work of fiction and is not presenting what it believes to be the literal truth regarding the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. With that in mind, it comes out well in comparison to the feather-light Shakespeare in Love. The production values of the film are tremendous. The producers have gone to great efforts to replicate Elizabethan London, with its architecture and much and the wooden planks used in place of modern sidewalks. The acting is tremendous, especially Rhys Ifans as de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth.
I recommend this film highly, not as a serious treatment of the authorship question, but as an entertaining piece of historical fiction. It might have been interesting to see a film that was a more serious treatment of the Oxfordian point-of-view, but such a film might well have been fairly boring in comparison.
Was William Shakespeare a front for an aristocrat who did not want his
name revealed as the author? This movie is about political intrigue and
how theater gets caught up in a larger struggle for power. The movie
offers an interesting and controversial portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I
and a glimpse of life in England at the beginning of the seventeenth
century. The printing press was becoming a political weapon and those
who published could influence the public, maybe to the point of
rebellion. Hence, the need of the government to control what was being
performed on stage. The stage served the same function of television
does today. It was the medium of mass entertainment, which made the
playwright a critical player in the politics of the time. Now, if
Shakespeare was a front, then the question is: who wrote all these
plays? Maybe it doesn't matter who actually wrote the plays but then
again, maybe it does matter because by knowing the author, this may
lead to new interpretations of the plays. Maybe these plays were
political polemics produced under the guise of historical drama.
Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: these plays made an impact
on society that continues to reverberate to this day.
One other point. This movie is a work of fiction and so if it is loose with certain historical facts, so what? This movie is not a documentary. Rather, it is a fictional historical drama that revolves around a controversial and even shocking plot. Whether Shakespeare is the actual author of the works attributed to him is not the point. That is a matter for debate. What is the point is whether the movie works as a movie. The story is complex, yet the movie manages to engage the audience through strong acting and by presenting a story crammed with political intrigue. Who can say for certain what was going on in England 500 years ago? It is all a matter for speculation, based upon the available historical material, all of which is subject to interpretation. The idea of English writers bickering and fighting over the authorship of plays may seem trite and far fetched, but the conflict makes for good drama, even if it is pure fiction.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Questioning Shakespeare's credits could be a divisive topic, and mixing
the idea with a terrific set of authors and an inventive script would
have resulted in an explosive film to say the least. The final result
is a film that is highly watchable because of its recreations of a long
gone period, but it is desperately lacking an effective script. We are
left with the movie that could have been.
We're taken through a highly irregular narrative that presents an alternate storyline to show what could have been Shakespeare's real role in the production of his masterpieces. Because of political and religious reasons, the man's true identity is hidden and through some quirks in the actual production of one of his early plays, soon we see the origin of the "public figure" that we associate the playwright with. Behind the scenes, we are told we have political intrigue, a modernistic retelling of the queen's secret life, and the tragic end to the people who might have been more responsible for the spirit and truth of the various works.
The film is at its best beautiful to look at, and it is entertaining in a few of the scenes. Still, one is left yearning for more clarification, for a better understanding of what could have the writers been thinking they could get away with. It is in the end, a mystery.
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