By Karen Dahlstrom
The Beard of Avon
No writer in the English language has been more influential, or more celebrated, than the "Bard of Avon," William Shakespeare. His works have survived for over 400 years, and many lines from his plays and sonnets have been absorbed into the modern lexicon. But was he the actual author? "Anonymous" posits the theory that no, the works of Shakespeare were actually penned by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Whether or not you side with the Oxfordian theory or are a die-hard "bardolatrist", it's an interesting theory, and should make for an entertaining story - were it in the hands of wry, literary-minded writers like Tom Stoppard, Julian Fellowes or Peter Morgan. Unfortunately, big-budget disaster movie director Roland Emmerich is the first to bring this tale to film. And it is no less cheezily catastrophic than his "2012
" or "The Day After Tomorrow
Rhys Ifans plays Oxford, a frustrated artist who has had to subsume his literary inclinations, being a high-ranking nobleman and the son-in-law of Queen Elizabeth's chief advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis). After a visit to The Rose Theater, Oxford is amazed by the packed audience of enthusiastic theater-goers, ranging from the nobility to the commoners. Seeing potential, he enlists the help of playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to stage his own plays under Jonson's name. Jonson balks at posing as Oxford's front, but Will (Rafe Spall) - a barely literate, drunken lout of a stage actor — has no such compunction, and gladly takes credit for the Earl's work.
Though irritated by Will's oafish antics, Oxford embraces the chance to see his work produced, not only to tweak the nose of his puritanical father-in-law, but to stir up the masses against the succession of James I of Scotland, should Queen Liz name no heir. In that spirit, Oxford laughably adopts the pen name "Shakespeare", as in - literally - shaking a spear. This is possibly the highest level of sophistication the film attains.
Made as a schlocky "thriller" with political overtones, the characters in "Anonymous" are less Shakespearian than they are vaudevillian. Between writing his masterpieces and fencing practice, Ifans stares moodily out windows in heavy eyeliner, remembering his youth as bedmate and favorite of Queen Elizabeth herself. Spall is ridiculously buffoonish as Will, the fame whore. Shakespeare's jealous artistic rival, Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle), is portrayed as a poncey bitch, twirling his moustache as he plots to report Will's "seditious" works to the Privy Council. And the film's "villain", hunchbacked royal advisor Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), is literally greeted with boos and hisses from the Queen's subjects.
It's amazing, then, that such a film would attract such notable actors as Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson (as the old and young Elizabeth, respectively) and Shakespearian veterans Derek Jacobi (who provides the film's prologue) and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe. Though both Jacobi and Rylance have openly embraced theories questioning Shakespeare's authorship, they are both much too good, acting-wise, to put their names to this slop.
"Anonymous", like a pantomime horse in the middle of the St. Crispin's Day speech in "Henry V", awkwardly tromps over Shakespeare's work, reducing it to parody. The film's inevitable twist ending (for such films must have twist endings) is shocking only in that it isn't accompanied by a musical "dun-dun-dun" tag. Whether or not you believe in the bard's authorship, or are even a fan of his work, it must be agreed that such enduring art deserves better than to be treated in such a ham-fisted way. (Exeunt, reviewer.)