“Master of Disaster” Roland Emmerich, best-known for “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” takes on Shakespeare for his latest movie. Sort of. “Anonymous” tackles that subject that used to come up with annoying regularity in college Shakespeare classes: Who really wrote the Bard’s plays?
“Anonymous” opens with in the present with Derek Jacobi rushing onto the stage of a Broadway theater (without stopping for makeup) just in time to address a packed house on why we shouldn’t believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. It’s ham-handed, facile and annoying. Audiences who have seen past Emmerich movies would be forgiven for expecting a direct hit by a meteor or something, as the director has destroyed New York City so many times on-screen that one is tempted to wonder if he ever got mugged in Central Park. It’s a fake-out. It isn’t this theater that’s destroyed, but Shakespeare’s Globe, when we finally manage to get back to the seventeenth century.
And not a moment too soon. If the business at hand is that we’re going to debunk Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays, show us, don’t make us listen to a lecture by an actor with an ax to grind. Emmerich, and his screenwriter John Orloff, adopt the view of the fervent, if elitist, Oxfordians, who believe that “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” were all in fact written by Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
And that, by the way, isn’t anything a movie can really be about. You emphatically cannot make a two hour-plus movie about someone not writing plays. And to be fair, Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is barely a character in this rambling, Elizabethan soap opera. Just as well. The filmmakers portray him as a drunken boob, a fairly complete nonentity who can’t even inspire our contempt.
The main character is De Vere, as imagined by Emmerich and Orloff. Emmerich’s De Vere is played by Rhys Ifans, who makes a quietly compelling figure out of a nobleman who’d rather be a poet and playwright. The problem is that this is an unsuitable pursuit for a man of his station, not to mention a dangerous one, during the politically unstable reign of Elizabeth I.
The problem is mainly that Orloff’s script has too many balls in the air. De Vere anoints Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to be his front man, but the opportunistic Shakespeare seizes the chance to grab credit. The movie needed trimming and it might have been possible to leave Jonson out of the equation and cast Shakespeare in a more positive light. Orloff, however, can’t seem to decide where his story is, and this is only one of several side trips the screenplay makes at the expense of economy and clarity.
Despite the prologue, which is all about the question of Shakespeare’s non-authorship, the movie seems to think it’s a political thriller. “Anonymous” leads up to the failed Essex Rebellion, an incident not well-known to American audiences, and insufficiently explained here. Complicating matters is the fact that so much time is spent on the soap opera plot elements (this movie definitely takes the view that Elizabeth’s nickname “The Virgin Queen” was ironic at best) that the movie fails to gather momentum just when you’d think the suspense should be building. According to the movie and many Oxfordians, by the way, De Vere was one of many off-the-books lovers entertained by Elizabeth. This movie actually goes further than that, but there will be no spoilers here.
What the movie deals with very little is the creative process of the man the movie claims wrote all this stuff. Other than alluding to the possibility long-embraced by Oxfordians that De Vere’s guardian, Lord William Cecil, was the model for Polonius in “Hamlet,” we get few clues into what’s behind these plays.
The movie does not mention the death in 1569 of two-year old Jane Shaxspere, who lost her footing and drowned in a mill pond picking marigolds, an incident eerily similar to the death of Ophelia in “Hamlet.” The little girl may have been a relative of William Shakespeare. Spelling was erratic at the time under the best of circumstances and Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways. To be fair, Orloff’s script was written before the sixteenth century coroner’s report of Jane Shaxspere’s death was publicized this past summer.
Nonetheless, Emmerich’s well-known technical craftsmanship is on full display, providing vistas of Elizabethan England to degrees never before accomplished. This is an absolutely gorgeously realized movie.
The performances are also excellent. Real life mother-daughter team Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave play Queen Elizabeth at different times of her life. The gimmicky casting actually works perfectly, and I plead guilty to being completely biased where Vanessa Redgrave is concerned. She doesn’t know how to give anything short of a great performance and couldn’t do it if she tried. Period. (Dual casting is less effective in the case of Jamie Campbell Bower, who’s a little too rock star pouty as De Vere in his younger days.) David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the “Harry Potter” movies) drips vitriol as De Vere’s guardian, Lord William Cecil.
This is far too handsome and well-acted a movie to dismiss out of hand. It hasn’t been done well by its own advertising, which boldly proclaims “we’ve all been played.” We haven’t. And the movie itself doesn’t even claim some kind of Da Vinci Code type of conspiracy is at work. If Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, after all, someone nonetheless did. As it is, we probably know less about Shakespeare than any major writer since Homer. It would add little to our understanding of the plays to know he didn’t actually write them. But who ever said that a playwright owed anything to his audience but the plays? Hamlet said “the play’s the thing.” He didn’t say a thing about the writer.
“Anonymous” is now showing at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and the Spectrum 8 Theatres in Albany.