With a plot that mixes themes from history and Shakespeare’s plays, Anonymous uses the backdrop of the struggle for succession between the Tudors and the Cecils as the Essex rebellion moves against Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) to set the scene for the debut of Shakespeare’s plays. But were they actually written by Shakespeare? The movie supposes it was Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), who penned plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
Richard: Mark, this is a sprawling story with many twists and turns. The downside is the film’s sketchy casting. In flashbacks the queen and Edward appear to be the same age, but later after a major twist, are revealed to be 16 years apart. This kind of lack of attention to detail makes it difficult to follow the story in the first hour. Soon enough, however, all the players are straightened away and the pleasures of the story take hold.
MB: Sorry, but is the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays a burning issue for anyone? Whenever they try to make Shakespeare ‘sexy’ I want to hurl. And yet, there were a lot of things to like about the movie. Pageantry geeks will swoon for the production design, theatre buffs will groove to the re-creations of the Elizabethan stage, and middle-aged women will get hot flashes at all the bodice ripping. But why was the story so hard to follow?
RC: It’s hard to follow because it assumes we know the political history and can juggle an abundance of powdered wigs with royal titles, many of whom kind of look alike. Having said that though, I think Ifans is terrific here. A little of him usually goes a long way but he’s doing some interesting work here.
MB: Is it racist to say that all British fops in the same facial hair look alike? I hope not ... You’re right about Ifans — he’s the soul of a very messy movie and anchors it with his sad eyes. Lots of good acting, (David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, and Sebastian Armesto as Ben Johnson) and lots of good overacting, too, from the rest of the cast. One of the things that will jolt most viewers is the way Shakespeare himself is portrayed — as a murderous, scheming, illiterate; so antithetical to our reverence for the man that I found it quite unnerving.
RC: I don’t think Anonymous has much to do with historical fact — there is no real-life evidence that the Earl of Oxford penned the plays — it’s just a palette for a twisted tale about how politics and art intersect, and the written word’s ability to instigate change.
MB: I know that’s what the movie aims for, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. There are two stories here: one is a literary biopic, the other a political thriller, and they don’t exactly mesh. But I think it’s a movie that would become clearer after a second viewing.