Film: Anonymous

I went to see Anonymous, the new Roland Emmerich film questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with cautious anticipation. What I was not expecting was to be thoroughly entertained by a period-piece thriller fantasy, but I was! I loved this movie, and can’t wait to go see it again. Seriously.

Let’s set aside the question of whether or not the film is accurate. The film is wildly inaccurate. The notion that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays is not even the most egregious speculation offered by John Orloff’s cheeky screenplay. If anyone wants to stand outside the theatre and argue that, yes, this is all true, they should be treated about as seriously as someone making that claim about Star Wars or Waiting for Superman. But inside the theatre, we have license to suspend our disbelief. Call it historical fiction, alternate timeline, sci-fi fantasy, or whatever helps the medicine go down, but don’t miss Anonymous for political reasons.

The film is based on the premise that the plays we know as William Shakespeare’s were actually written by Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Unable to claim the plays as his own in a treacherous climate, he asks established playwright Ben Jonson to put his name on them. Jonson wants to keep his voice distinct from the nobleman’s, so an illiterate actor, one William Shakespeare, steps forward and claims the glory. Political maneuverings surrounding the question of who will succeed the aging Queen Elizabeth I create tension for Oxford, who finds that he can speak directly to the people through the voice of his celebrated front man. You see? It all makes perfect sense.

The visual depiction of Elizabethan London is stunning and believable. Rhys Ifans and Sebastian Armesto give outstanding performances as Oxford and Jonson. Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson (her daughter) together create a powerful mutli-dimensional Elizabeth. If you can stomach the depiction of our beloved William Shakespeare as an opportunistic buffoon, he is played to comic perfection by Rafe Spall. But if it does bother you, please remember that Shakespeare himself is largely responsible for our present day image of King Richard III as a deformed child-murderer. Payback’s a bitch, Billy-Boy.

But his own depiction aside, I think Shakespeare is honored by this film. A running theme throughout the movie is that these simple words have the power to delight and to inspire, to incite riots and to seduce monarchs. Will some people come away with the idea that Shakespeare was a fraud? Maybe. But for every audience member who gets that impression, there will be another ten who are moved to find out more about these plays and poems. We get to hear quite a bit of the original language spoken by the magnificent Mark Rylance as Richard Burbage, and the see the power it wields. That’s the transcendent truth that rises above all of the fabrications. And that, ultimately, is what we take away from Anonymous.

8 Responses to “Film: Anonymous

  1. Len Digges Says:

    This review reminds me, eerily, of how some praised Leni Riefenstahl’s film, “Triumph of the Will” for the strength of its aesthetic or visual conception, independent of propaganda, while others (e.g., Roger Ebert) saw it as “a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.”

  2. Bill Says:

    Wow. Stay classy, bro.

  3. Mike rubbo Says:

    Sorry, Len the comparison is not fair. The review is fine. It catches what is so good about this film, though I would go further in praise, and that’s without being an Oxfordian.

    What the film gives us, what we have been craving even without knowing it, is a portrait of the writer as a man of passion, one who’s compelled to write.

    Not only is Oxford seen here driven in a believable way by life, by his circumstances, he’s also driven to witness his work , hover in the background at the theatre, to see the crowd respond.

    That too we’ve been missing to date , the sense of author and public bonded, even as we rake over the pathetic biography Shakespeare leaves us, hoping to believe in him..

    He’s a man who leaves no writing on his writing, no remembered conversations with anyone, no observed creative passion as seen by others. I think we have a right to expect that Shakespeare, if he was the author, would manage get down to us, through the filter of time, at least some of the above.

    It’s not as if we know nothing. We just know the wrong things, and almost all that we know drags him from the role.

    That he hoarded grain in famine times, that he dealt in real estate and money lending in shady ways, lending way above the legal interest rate, that there was an apprehended violence order against him, that on retiring to Stratford, he brought nothing back to the town in terms of theater or learning.

    This nasty picture, which has Jonathan Bate admitting in my film that he’s not a a likeable fellow, goes on and on. The school which is supposed to have given him such an exceptional start in life, is just next door to his mansion., but he gives it nothing.

    Then to cap it off, how dare he leave his name in the church records as William Shakespeare, gent. He insults every lesser writer by not at least claiming the title of poet in the death register.

    But then, the famous bust in the same church we know so well with cushion and quill, originally featured Shakespeare holding a sack of wheat. So perhaps he titled himself aptly.

    So bravo, Anonymous for giving us a Bard we can believe in though I remain leaning towards Marlowe as I explored in the 2000 documentary, Much Ado About Something

  4. Bill Says:

    What the film gives us, what we have been craving even without knowing it, is a portrait of the writer as a man of passion, one who’s compelled to write.

    Mike, I think you may be on to something here, and this may have had something to do with my enjoyment of the film. I’ve spent a good bit of my life in service to this man, and I’ve been given very little of his life in return.

    It’s not as if we know nothing. We just know the wrong things, and almost all that we know drags him from the role.

    So the appeal of Anonymous, then, is that it shows us the man we wish Shakespeare had been, and maintain hope that he was. I finally understand the desire to question the authorship, and the passion that drives those who do. As you say, the movie gives us a Bard we can believe in!

    Once the credits roll, however, the playwright still remains William Shakespeare. For the evidence, I defer to my more esteemed colleagues who have compiled an impressive eBook on the subject called Shakespeare Bites Back.

    Whatever we may wish to be the case, the evidence speaks for itself. And Marlowe seems to be a particularly unusual candidate besides. He died at age 29, so the idea that it’s even possible that he could have written the works attributed to him as well as the complete works of Shakespeare seems unlikely.

  5. Daweesa Says:

    Yer brilliant Bill. And fair. And open and mature. Proud to know you – grateful to read insights like these that you share on this website. My only wish is MORE PLEASE. ;)

  6. Bill Says:

    As you wish.

  7. Nicolo Demosthious Says:

    Hello there, I discovered this article very interesting to read, and myself and also my husband had been wondering how you encountered such an amazing experience, packed with everything that enjoyable as well as pleasure, If only you all I possibly could experience something similar to this, possibly eventually we can tell the other person the differences as well as commonalities and also encounter any final stage for our activities.

  8. Shakespeare Teacher » Blog Archive » Theatre: Richard III at the Belasco Says:

    [...] that I had seen Rylance give this speech before. He delivers the same monologue playing Burbage in Anonymous. But this was a very different delivery than the one he gave in the film. Here, Rylance delivers [...]

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