'Anonymous': To See or Not to See?
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Does it matter whether Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare? Is it important that we believe that a "cipher" and relative nobody named William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him? I used to believe not, that the reality of the work itself was the crucial factor. But after seeing "Anonymous," a "historical" drama with a hook in Shakespeare-identity studies, I'm not so sure, although the filmmakers might not be happy to learn that their work has had the effect of putting this reviewer very fixedly on the pro-Will side of things.
"Anonymous," directed by Roland Emmerich from a script by John Orloff, is a sweeping, handsome historical thriller whose hook is in the notion that Shakespeare's plays were in fact written by the Earl of Oxford, here played by Rhys Ifans. As the Shakespeare enthusiast Ron Rosenbaum noted in his first-rate book "The Shakespeare Wars," there's explicable, if not actually good, reason that anti-Will conspiracy theorists want to put Shakespeare's words into the mind and through the pen of a royal. Citing "the persistence of unprovable theories about Shakespeare authorship," Rosenbaum turns his nose up at "the way they so often focus on aristocratic candidates. ... In a snobby way [the proponents of these theories] can't believe that a middle-class glover's boy without a university education (like theirs) could possibly write Shakespeare's witty and erudite verse. It's an affront somehow to their self-image, so they must imagine instead a hidden aristocratic progenitor." For Rosenbaum, the Earl of Oxford theory is "the Family Romance of the Shakespeare deniers."
To give "Anonymous" some anti-snob credit, the film goes to pains to posit that the creative life is sneered upon by all those who surround the dashing aesthete Oxford, and that Oxford squanders his family fortune and much of his name on his artistic pursuits, which are roundly condemned as, you know, the devil's work. In the meantime, Mr. Shakespeare himself is portrayed as a lout and a blackmailer and a vulgar drunk. (Rafe Spall plays Will in such a way as to suggest the part was first offered to Steve Coogan, who I'd like to think had the good taste and respect to turn it down flat.) The whole setup plays a little like "The Front" crossed with "Amadeus," only not as good and a whole lot more vulgar than either. Even though Emmerich is working with ostensibly more refined material here, the ham-handed touch of the man who gave us "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012" is felt quite heavily throughout.
The movie begins, after a couple of time-shifting prologues, with good Oxford, in a mood not just to finally bring his works to light (this conjecture has him sitting on the likes of "Julius Caesar" and "Romeo and Juliet" and like works for years before the start of the story proper), but to shake things up in the court of Queen Elizabeth II, paying off failed playwright Ben Jonson to stage one of his works, anonymously, at Jonson's struggling Rose theater. And what do you know, the thing's a hit. And soon, via various machinations, aging Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) is charmed by the theatrical works she seems to also remember from her youth, several sinister courtiers invested in making the wretched Scot James I the next king are vexed, and flashbacks take us back to a romance between the young Oxford and a young Queen Bess (played by Redgrave's own daughter Joely Richardson). It gets pretty complicated, which is why it takes a hair or two over two hours to finish up. And along the way, a credulous audience might learn that "Richard III" was intended as agitprop, that "Julius Caesar" ends with Caesar's assassination, and that the first production of "Henry V" also introduced stage-diving to the Western world. Well, OK then.
The Earl of Oxford premise is, as scholars sometimes point out, in fact a little more preposterous than the authorship it's intended to replace. And Orloff's screenplay adds complications to make it more preposterous still, including a twist out of the Roman Polanski oeuvre that's kind of staggering, and not in a good way.
Speaking of scholars, they're already having a field day with the picture, condemning its panoply of historical and aesthetic fallacies and heresies while worrying that this will do for Shakespeare what Oliver Stone's "JFK" did for, you know. I'm not that worried. The picture doesn't make the case all that compellingly. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit it didn't contain some pleasures: Ifans' haughtiness, David Thewlis' faux gravitas, Mark Rylance doing some groovy monologuing, Derek Jacobi being Jacobian, and the aforementioned regal Redgrave. They deserve better, but they all do better than all right with this mess.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.