At long last I watched the 2011 film Anonymous this week. In case the plot escapes you, it’s about William Shakespeare. To be more specific, it’s about the plays of William Shakespeare, and whether or not we’ve been hoodwinked for 400 years, and the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
I’m not going to jump into the debate here about who wrote Shakespeare’s works, except to say that I am of the opinion that they were written by ……William Shakespeare. Your own opinion may differ. Let us agree to disagree, and take a look at the film.
First of all, the marvelous way the film begins high above modern day New York City, the camera swooping down to follow Derek Jacobi through the stage door just in time for the rising of the curtain so he can introduce, like a Chorus, the matter of the play, Anonymous. As the actors take the stage, we are swept, via cinema magic, to Elizabethan England. This is perhaps an homage to something that Laurence Olivier did in his film version of Henry V, a film that begins high above Elizabethan London and proceeds into the wooden O of the Globe Theater where we watch the first two scenes of the play before we are swept, via that same cinema magic, to the vasty fields of France. Someone did his homework, and I loved it.
Second, the many, many quotes from Shakespeare’s plays. In the course of the film, during performances and rehearsals, the Bard’s marvelous words are spoken “trippingly upon the tongues” of the wonderful actors on the screen. Delicious.
Third, the expressions on the face of Rhys Ifans, who plays Edward de Vere, particularly as he is watching the performances of the plays. There is a mournful intensity that I found utterly moving and believable. He was given some marvelous lines, as well, about the power of words.
Fourth, the Globe. Okay, yes, the filming was done on a sound stage in Germany. Nevertheless, the Globe was beautifully captured. Even better was the response of the audience to what they were seeing and hearing. The groundlings were so caught up in the play that in one scene they reach out to touch the actor, and in another scene they are moved to near riot. The film gives us a glimpse of what it might have been like to see Julius Caesar or Henry V for the very first time.
The movie’s drawbacks? There were a few. I’m not going to go into the historical biographies of Essex and the Cecils here….you can read about them somewhere else if you’re interested, but I would note two things: Robert Cecil was, indeed, a hunchback and a political schemer, but the play put on at the Globe and paid for by Essex’s supporters was Richard II, not Richard III. (Nicely imagined though. Gave me quite a shock to see a connection between humpback Richard and humpback Cecil, and maybe there was one, but not as presented here.) My biggest issue, though, was with the portrayal of Elizabeth I as a doddering, childlike, clueless old lady completely dependent on the Cecils. I don’t buy it. She had a brilliant mind, even towards the end of her life. She was 68 at the time of the Essex rebellion, would live for another two years, and was shrewd right to the very end. She had her hands full keeping all the ambitious men of her court and their followers in line and in balance, but she mostly succeeded. In spite of being a woman, she was the first English monarch to giver her name to an age. I was offended by the way she was presented in this film. I was also unimpressed by the portrayal of Shakespeare, the actor. There was no need to make him as unpalatable as he comes across here – venal, illiterate, and not even a good actor. A buffoon, really. It was unnecessary, and it detracted from the film, whether you buy into the premise or not. If Mr. Emmerich had written him as a decent actor down on his luck, desperate for money to support his family back in Stratford, it would only have made the film stronger.
Would I recommend this film in spite of its drawbacks? Absolutely. Flawed or not, it’s SHAKESPEARE!!!!