November 3, 2011 by Zack
I’m going to go ahead and assume you’ve all heard of William Shakespeare. His timeless tales like “Hamlet”, “Romeo & Juliet”, and “Macbeth” have been performed probably thousands of times, and adapted multiple times, even in modern film. So many times, I’d say, that a lot of the luster is lost in some cases because we’re almost too familiar with the subject matter.
But while the stories may have resonated and will most likely be considered some of the greatest of all time, the man William Shakespeare still remains quite a mystery. Not much is known to the average person about Shakespeare’s life. There is a growing popular theory that Shakespeare wasn’t actually the author at all of these plays, and Sonnets. He was rather a charlatan, an actor, who took credit for these writings where he himself was illiterate and a bit of an idiot.
That’s the premise, at least, for Roland Emmerich’s new film, “Anonymous”, a film that tries to debunk the idea that William Shakespeare was indeed, The Bard. I thought the choice of Emmerich to direct was an odd one; he’s not only known for his blustery action yarns (“Independence Day”, “Stargate”, “The Day After Tomorrow”), but he’s also on record as not even really being a fan of Shakespeare’s plays. And so I walked in with a bit of trepidation, just hoping that the script (which was written and circulated around the time of “Shakespeare in Love”) would be enough to not be ruined by Emmerich’s aloof detachment from the material.
Unfortunately, I was right to have my doubts. The film stars Rhys Ilfans as an aristocrat named Edward De Vere, and he is supposedly the actual author of the plays that would come to be known as Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare himself (played very Tom Hulce in “Amadeus”-like by Rafe Spall) is an actor that doesn’t really care about much except money and living a hedonistic lifestyle. De Vere has a torrid love affair with Elizabeth I (played by Vanessa Redgrave as the elder Elizabeth, Joely Richardson as the younger) who loves his plays and falls in love with his way with words and his romance. Alas, their love affair is frowned upon. De Vere was originally taken in as a boy by a long time Baron of Elizabeth, William Cecil. De Vere becomes Cecil’s ward, alongside Cecil’s full blooded son Robert, who is jealous of De Vere’s ability to swoon.
The plot is complicated to say the least. We’re initially introduced to Ben Jonson, who was an important writer of that time (and well played, if a little gruffly by Sebastian Armesto) though you’d never know it from this film. Jonson is hiding the plays of De Vere to protect his name, and is interrogated to give up the name of who was behind the plays. We’re then taken back 5 years to see Jonson approached by De Vere who had attended one of his plays, to take De Vere’s plays and enjoy the success he’s sure to have by taking the credit. Jonson, unsure of himself and seemingly wanting his own work to be accepted rather than just taking someone else’s, instead passes the plays along to the boastful and arrogant William Shakespeare, who’s acted in a few of his plays. Shakespeare loves the limelight and the money he gets, but he isn’t told by Jonson who actually wrote the plays.
The intrigue grows as another rival, Christopher Marlowe, finds out about Shakespeare’s secret; the next thing you know, Marlowe’s no more. Meanwhile, De Vere has a troubled marriage with his wife Anne, who is the daughter of William Cecil, who wanted De Vere to lead a noble lifestyle and carry on his name, which we find has a long history (that involves Elizabeth) and needs to be carried on. De Vere, though, could never truly commit to Anne, and his love affair with Elizabeth could ruin the reputation of everyone. And his writing is looked down upon by Anne and William. De Vere complicates thing by impregnating Elizabeth, and then while Elizabeth is away, has an affair with someone resembles her. Elizabeth banishes him from the court, and De Vere is alone. He still has his work. He just doesn’t have the credit.
The film shifts between Jonson’s unsure self image and De Vere’s unsure legacy; but it never really comes together thematically. Instead of being moved by the complications of the plot, we’re left behind; only to try and play catch up while the film keeps going. There are all sorts of characters that are introduced, then forgotten about, then shown again, and we’re supposed to keep track of all of them all the while not really being sure of anyone’s actual motivations. It turns out to be just another Elizabethan costume drama, where everybody’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.
To be fair, it does help if you are already familiar with some of these characters in their own right. Ben Jonson is probably the key player to understand. It’s important to note that Jonson was known as one of the great writers of his era. However, if you don’t know who Jonson is, you won’t get to know him much by this film. And there aren’t any inside jokes that people that do know about the era to keep you interested. There is a scene toward the end when De Vere wants to genuinely know what Jonson thought of his plays…I think the answer, like a lot of this film most likely, was total fiction. He was actually, like Emmerich, not a huge fan of Shakespeare’s.
Fiction is fine, though, if it’s done well. “Shakespeare in Love” is a great example of having fun with Shakespearean plays, as well as telling a fun story. It’s great entertainment. This, however, seems labored and slow. While the acting is strong, the characters never seem to really come to life as they should have. The fact that this script laid around so long made me think that the poor screenwriter was doomed by too many Elizabethan projects (seriously, how many movies about Queen Elizabeth have there been in the past 10 years or so?). Now I’m wondering if it was because the script itself wasn’t very strong.
The best moments, I suppose fittingly, are the ones where we see Shakespeare’s immortal plays acted out in the little theatres in England, including Shakespeare’s own once he’s bribed his way into getting one (and his own coat of arms). It is a reminder that it’s the words that are important, not so much who wrote them. And that’s what the film is striving for as a theme–but while that element is obvious and the point is taken, nothing else in the film explores that. For example, we don’t get a sense that it was important that Ben Jonson was the writer of his own plays vs. De Vere never getting to amount to anything because of his poor judgment and by being a victim of his own romance.
What makes this a major disappointment is that the premise is a very strong one. It’s not like there’s going to be a subgenre of “Who Was William Shakespeare REALLY?”. Of course, there’s the possibility of the mockbuster version, probably called “Unnamed”. But that probably won’t star anybody bigger than Joe Estevez (some may argue a film cannot star Joe Estevez, however). So we are left with this disappointing film, which still doesn’t really answer the question it asks in the ad (“Was Shakespeare a Fraud?”) because there really isn’t any evidence that any of this is true. It accomplishes nothing as an historical drama; and it accomplishes nearly as much as being a dramatic drama.
Maybe if this film had half the heart of The Bard did(whoever he may be) we’d have a truly great tribute to one of the greatest writers of all time. Instead, it’s just a hollow effort that leaves one unmoved. To be or not to be. Not to be. (thank you, Jack Slater)