Friday, February 24, 2012

Anonymous Movie Review

I’m not a Shakespeare scholar. I probably know more than most people but I certainly can’t claim any intimate knowledge of his life and work. I know enough to say that the alleged controversial question of authorship of his works is complete and utter bunk, in spite of what Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi believes. The issue strikes me as little more than the common disbelief among those who have spent lots of time and money on formal education that someone with a lesser education could possibly possess such genius. A major part of the argument has been that Shakespeare’s education was insufficient to prepare him for works containing classical allusions and such. As far as I’m concerned this is no different to any modern day conspiracy theory that suggests for instance that we never really went to the moon and that George W. Bush personally flew airplanes into the World Trade towers.

I’m also pretty sure neither Roland Emmerich nor John Orloff is a Shakespeare scholar, but that didn’t stop Orloff from writing a screenplay based on the controversy and Emmerich from directing it. Anonymous is such a bald-faced travesty of historical accuracy and even if it weren’t it would remain a very bad film. But this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Emmerich’s previous work in the disaster film genre. Films like Independence Day, Godzilla, and 2012 have proven again and again that his primary goal as a director is to fill the screen with bombast. This time, instead of using guns, explosions and crevasses opening in the earth, he’s created chaos by attempting to stage and Elizabethan drama. I wasn’t sure there was a director who could draw a bad performance from Vanessa Redgrave, but now that mystery has been solved.

Anonymous begins with Jacobi arriving late to a New York theater where he’s meant to be the prologue narrator to a historical stage drama about this very controversy in which the 17th Earl of Oxford is the real author behind the works attributed to William Shakespeare. As the lights fade on Jacobi, they rise on the period costumed actors behind him and through the magic of cinema we are transported back to Elizabethan England, recreated using murky CGI that makes not only the London weather seem dreary and gray, but the settings as well. I’ve been to London and can say unequivocally that the sun does occasionally shine.

The drama unfolds with a young man running through the streets of London holding a folder full of papers while being pursued by guards. He takes shelter beneath the stage in a theater and stashes the manuscripts in a chest while the guards burn the building around him. He is remanded into custody in The Tower (of London, that is) where he is questioned under minor torture for the manuscripts. We then flash back “5 Years Earlier” when this same young man, the Shakespeare contemporary playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), is struggling just to achieve the notoriety of Kit Marlowe, and Shakespeare himself (Rafe Spall) is a bumbling and foolish idiot of an actor. Here we find one of the film’s most glaring errors – Christoher Marlowe was already long dead when the events of this film take place.

As the action progresses we’re introduced to a wide range of characters in both the world of London theater and the Elizabethan Court, where Rhys Ifans plays the Earl of Oxford and Redgrave is Queen Elizabeth. She is presented as a doddering old coot who loves seeing silly plays performed for her including A Midsummer Night’s Dream which reminds her of a play she saw performed at court and written by the child Oxford 40 years earlier. I’m not joking when I say that the movie flashes back again to that time. So we have a movie that began in contemporary New York that shifted back to the earlier 17th century only to flashback 5 years and THEN goes back another 40. This becomes exhaustibly confusing trying to keep all the timelines straight especially when Jonson is arrested in the third timeline and suddenly we’re not sure when we are.

For the scenes set at Court, it helps that Redgrave’s real life daughter Joely Richardson plays the Queen as a young woman and David Thewlis as her Royal Treasurer William Cecil plays both the middle-aged and elderly versions of his character but under heavy age makeup us the latter. It turns out the Cecils, William and his son Robert (Edward Hogg) are behind the plot to keep the secret of Oxford’s writing. It involves affairs and illegitimate children by Elizabeth, a plot to keep Oxford married to William Cecil’s daughter and to facilitate James of Scotland’s ascent to the throne in spite of Elizabeth’s protestations.

I would relate more of the plot and how it all contributes to this absurd idea that Oxford was the man who actually wrote all those wonderful plays, but it’s hardly worth the time because Orloff didn’t even bother putting in the necessary time to support it with a decent screenplay. He tries his very best to be clever in a Shakespeare in Love kind of way by inserting what I’m sure he thinks are sly references to Shakespeare’s works, but unlike Tom Stoppard, who actually knows something about Shakespeare, his witticisms fall flat.

At its core, Anonymous is a political thriller set 400 years in the past. It just has the unabashed gall to couch it in a dreadful rewrite of history.

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