Here’s Part II of my Elizabethan's at the Movies series taking a quick look at the most recent crop of modern Elizabethan-era films. Today, only one entry:
Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Rafe Spall
I’ll start with the blunt and brutal assessment that the plotline and claims of the film are a steaming crock of shit. It’s hard to look at anything else contained in this film without the nonsensical plotline obscuring the elements that work and the performances of the actors. Be advised, this review will contain spoilers….
The film advances the oft-cited theory that the plays of William Shakespeare were, in reality, penned by Edward deVere, the Earl of Oxford. That’s not really the reason for the plotline being a crock of shit, although it certainly contributes (and I know that there are any number of “Oxfordians” out there who will steadfastly argue the veracity of their theory, to which I will respond “prove it”, which usually meets with sputtering indignation and much spurious assumptions but no actual evidence).
The story postulates that Edward deVere was a literary prodigy, penning A Mid-Summer Nights Dream as a child, and later is forced to abjure himself from literature by his forced marriage to William Cecil’s daughter after murdering a servant that was spying on him (I know, a bit convoluted). Later, driven by his literary urges, he attempts to suborn playwright Ben Jonson into taking credit for his work, but eventually settles on a drunken, egotistic and bombastic actor named William Shakespeare. Shakespeare eventually finds out who is supplying him the plays and in turn blackmails deVere for more funds (Will also murders Christopher Marlowe, who uncovers the secret).
Brace yourself, now it gets a bit more convoluted…De Vere, becomes romantically involved with Queen Elizabeth, purportedly fathering an illegitimate son in secret, who is adopted out by Cecil and eventually becomes Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. However, it turns out that this isn’t the first secret lovechild of Elizabeth. The first is (drum-roll) De Vere himself!
All of this incest/secret child nonsense leads to the climax involving the attempt to stir a popular rebellion against the nefarious Cecils who are controlling and manipulating the Queen to insure the succession of James I. The popular rebellion is led by the Earl of Essex and Southampton, ably supported by deVere penning Richard III as a attempt to drive the mob into a frenzy and overthrow the evil hunchbacked younger Cecil’s control over the throne.
So. Yeah. In a nutshell: craptastic.
What works – Elizabethan London has rarely looked as fine and dazzling as it does in Anonymous. The gorgeous CGI brings the city to life in a way not seen on the screen before. The sets and locations are terrific, the costumes wonderful, the energy and vibrancy of the stage at the Globe is fantastic. The acting is solid, with Rhys Ifans pulling a soulful performance out of deVere, and Vanessa Redgrave as the elderly version of Elizabeth (this movie time-jumps wildly all over the place, did I fail to mention that?) is quite good. The other standout for me was Rafe Spall as the duplicitous William Shakespeare – actor, murderer, drunkard, blackmailer – but damned fun to watch.
History-wise this movie is, as stated, pretty much a crock. I won’t get into the documented evidence against practically everything the plot claims but, hey, it’s SUBSTANTIAL. You can review that online at your leisure. Some of it is fun to read but if you want a good, well-written documented and authoritative look at the whole Oxford vs Shakespeare fight, grab a copy of CONTESTED WILL by James Shapiro.
Overall terrible piece of film, beautifully made and acted.
Tomorrow: Shakespeare in Love