Reviewed by James Karas
The movie Anonymous is set in 16th century England and deals with people named William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson the Earls of Oxford, Southampton and Essex and a host of other historically familiar personages.
At the end of the movie, after the interminable credits roll by, there is a fulsome disclaimer to the effect that this is a work of fiction and if any person or incident bears any resemblance to actual events or people, it is entirely coincidental.
The movie deals ostensibly with the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and involves us in the convoluted politics, plots and treacheries of Elizabethan England. The punch line, if it can be called that, is that Shakespeare did not write a single word of the works attributed to him and that everything was penned by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
The idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote what we consider Shakespeare’s works is not new. There are numerous candidates for the position of giving authorship credit to anybody but the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon. It is a fair game engaged by hard working enthusiasts and bringing the subject to the big screen can only increase interest in the plays and the question. But could they not make a better movie? Did it have to be a convoluted bore where you stay awake merely to see if you can figure out the chronological changes as the film jumps back and forth over decades? Did it have to be that dumb?
According to Anonymous, the best thing that can be said about Shakespeare is that he was a dunce. He can read enough to learn his lines (he is an actor) but he cannot write and it is downhill from there. He is given Oxford’s plays by Ben Jonson and is paid well to pretend that they are his own. When he runs out of money or simply wants more (he is a greedy pig), he blackmails Oxford into giving him huge amounts. Meet Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare: an illiterate idiot and an extortionist.
On the political side, we have Queen Elizabeth who is a very sensual woman in her youth and has numerous lovers and several bastard children. One of her sons and subsequent lover is the Earl of Oxford and their lovechild is none other than the Earl of Southampton, the man to whom the sonnets are dedicated. The Queen does not know what happens to her child and the incest is done unknowingly. Remember Oedipus and Jocasta?
The political battle lines are drawn between the Cecils and the Earl of Essex. Oxford has been forced to marry William Cecil’s daughter while his son Southampton keeps company with Essex. The Cecils plot against Essex to ensure that their choice of king will succeed the aging Elizabeth while Essex wants to be king.
By this time you have lost all interest in the political permutations and are in danger of causing ruptures to the corners of your mouth from excessive yawning.
There are a few scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, we see Ben Jonson being tortured and some boom, boom and bang, bang as Essex tries to start a rebellion and ends up with his head on a chopping block but by that time you have probably lost the plotline and run out of popcorn.
Enough fulmination about a stupid movie and some well-deserved credit to the actors. Rhys Ifans is a man full of thought and talent with little political ability. He has poetry and drama in his veins in this fine performance as the Earl of Oxford.
Queen Elizabeth is a very sensuous young woman played by Joely Richardson and as the old, imperious but crumbling monarch played by Vanessa Redgrave.
Derek Jacobi is wasted as a narrator at the beginning and end of the movie but his voice is always a pleasure to hear.
David Thewlis plays the conniving and corrupt Sir William Cecil and Rafe Spall plays the nasty William Shakespeare.
There are some fine scenes of London and its theatres and the lines from Shakespeare’s plays simply burn holes in this turgid movie that does a disservice to everyone, especially the audience.
The movie opened in Australia on November 3, 2011 and I saw it in Brisbane on November 5. There were precisely four people in the Event Cinema with my wife and I making up 50% of the audience. Those Australians sure know how to judge movies.