“So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.”—Mark Twain
Who knew? Just like the everlasting debate between the Darwinian evolutionists and the creationists, there’s an ongoing debate between the “Stratfordians” and the “anti-Stratfordians” about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote his own plays.
While unable to completely eliminate reasonable doubt, Roland Emmerich’s latest movie, the speculative-historical tour de force, Anonymous, left this reviewer a little bit convinced that “Willy the Shake” was a fake.
The England of the first Queen Elizabeth is revealed to harbor vicious political power plays for the throne and lusty, forbidden romantic trysts in the Royal Court—a veritable mud-pit of dirty deeds rivaling the reeking muck that smears the streets of London.
Among roiling multiple plot lines, some true, some not, Anonymous names Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real behind-the-scenes author of the glorious canon normally attributed to Shakespeare. He exposes the political intrigues of the day onstage in plays, which, for obvious reasons, he can’t sign his name to.
In one of the film’s flashbacks, Edwards’s father, the 16th Earl of Oxford, entertains the young Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), who is smitten by the precocious pre-pubescent Edward’s performance as “Puck,” in one of his personally penned plays.
When Edward’s father dies, the teenage Edward (played by the handsome Jamie Campbell Bower), becomes a ward of Elizabeth and is placed under the care of Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis), where he is exhaustively tutored into a truly prodigious renaissance man. Voilá—the real Shakespeare stands up.
Enter “the real” Will Shakespeare, a bumbling braggart of a thespian, stage right. Actually, the adult Edward (a magnificent Rhys Ifans) first solicits Ben Johnson, the young poet, playwright, and friend of Shakespeare, for the job of being his public face and name––a sort of reverse ghostwriting situation. However, the loutish, womanizing Shakespeare manages to step in and snatch away the prize.
We’ve never seen Elizabethan England on screen quite like this before, in all its byzantine squalor and glowing, chiaroscuro riches, although “Elizabeth,” starring Cate Blanchett, came close. The CGI is outstanding and revelatory.
Delightful are the bits and pieces of Shakespearian plays shown in performance at the Globe Theatre. Most medleys trivialize and diminish, but this particular “greatest hits” approach serves only to further underline The Bard’s brilliance and gets one musing about theater subscriptions. The smidgeon of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is particularly delightful.
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Jamie Campbell Bower, Derek Jacobi
Running time: 130 minutes
An all-star British cast presides, with Derek Jacobi reprising a version of the prologue role he had in Kenneth Branagh’s groundbreaking Henry V, and the mother-daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson switch-hitting on the roles of the older and younger Elizabeth, to fabulous effect.
In the movie’s most touching scene, the long-forbearing Edward, who’s seen his rightful glory wallowed in for decades by the Oscar-type speech-giving, self-aggrandizing Shakespeare, finally asks Ben Johnson what he thinks of his work. Johnson’s wrenching, tearful tribute, with Edward hanging on his every word and deeply grateful for Johnson’s compliment, is quite moving.
In a sense, Anonymous is to director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) what Schindler’s List was to Steven Spielberg. It reveals its director, heretofore regarded only as an action filmmaker and entertainer, as an artist of more depth than one had formerly given him credit for.
An Oscar nomination for best director shouldn’t be entirely out of the question. There should also be an Oscar category for shedding new light on old topics: Willy the Shake’s a fake. See for yourself.