Friday, October 28, 2011

Anonymous: A Bard by Any Other Name

When you become successful, everyone wants to tear you down. In his day, nobody was bigger than William Shakespeare. He’s still big, it’s the plays that got small. Yet for some reason, there has long been a gaggle of scholars out to attribute most or even the entire Shakespearean canon to other writers. Director Roland Emmerich throws his lot in with the Stratford Truthers with Anonymous (trailer here), his bid for costume drama respectability, which opens today nationwide.

All those tragedies, comedies, pastoral-historicals, and sonnets were not the work of Shakespeare, but Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, a high-born failure with a scandalous past. A disaster at politics, Oxford is like an Elizabethan Walter Mitty, who simply cannot stop giving voice to the characters in his head. With the help of Ben Jonson, Oxford finally stages one of his dramas for the public. When the play is a smash, a crude but ambitious actor steps forward to claim authorship of the anonymous work. That of course would be Shakespeare.

Neither Oxford nor Jonson think very much of Shakespeare, but they begrudgingly accept him as their public mask. Naturally though, many people suspect the truth, which will have dire political ramifications as the courtly intrigue builds towards the Essex Rebellion.

Screenwriter John Orloff (whose great-grandparents were Fibber McGee and Molly according to IMDb) plays it decidedly fast and loose with historical dates and events, but that can ultimately be forgiven (assuming he really did write Anonymous). Indeed, he makes some clever connections between the plays and figures of the era, most notably Oxford’s nemesis, the Queen’s councilor Robert Cecil.

However, his case for Oxford is considerably problematic. We are told Shakespeare could read (or else how could he function as an actor), but was incapable of writing even a single letter. This notion is difficult to buy into. For various reasons, great efforts are made to keep Oxford’s authorship a secret, yet it seems like half the court already knows. We are even told Oxford staged some of his work for Elizabeth when they were on better terms, so who are they actually fooling?

What really works in Anonymous is Rhys Ifans as Oxford. He plays the Earl exactly as we would like to imagine Shakespeare: a world weary romantic humanist. Indeed, the whole point seems to be Shakespeare’s soul is found in his work, regardless of his biographical particulars. Conversely, centuries later we still seem to love to hate Christopher Marlowe, so the common rabble can enjoy hissing at Trystan Gravelle, who portrays the Doctor Faustus playwright as a snippy conniver.

Light years away from his typically apocalyptic fare, such as 2012 and Independence Day, Emmerich’s approach is still quite visually dynamic. There are also some impressive set pieces that vividly bring Elizabethan London to life. Unfortunately, his management of the two-track flashback narrative structure gets a bit clumsy at times. The lack of a genuine romance also hurts the film, not just in comparison to the obvious antecedent, Shakespeare in Love, but to help explain Oxford/Shakespeare’s lyrically melancholy sensibilities.

Technically accomplished, Anonymous features a strong ensemble cast, but the extent to which it stretches credibility and leaves conspicuous questions unanswered becomes distracting. An interesting home viewing choice perhaps but hardly an essential trip to the theater, Anonymous opens today (10/28) in New York at the Village East.