To see, or not to see? 'Anonymous' has both good and bad

Reeling It In

Columbia Pictures
2 hours, 10 minutes

"What if William Shakespeare never ... wrote ... a ... single ... word?" (Pauses added for emphasis.) This is the ueberdramatic question that opens this week's film, the late 2011 release of the 16th-century conspiracy thriller, "Anonymous." This was a film that both my wife and I eagerly awaited, I being a former English teacher and she a current one. Conspiracy theories surrounding the authorship of the works of the Bard are nothing new, but a big budget, splashy Hollywood film from the guy who made "Independence Day," "Godzilla," and "2012"? Well, how could you miss that? And yet, miss it we did and, rather than go see Nicholas Cage refinance another of his Caribbean islands with this week's "Ghost Rider 2," we decided to rent "Anonymous" instead. We figured it would either be great, or really terrible. It's actually a little of both.


If you're not familiar with the premise of this story, I'll give you a quick historical recap. Shakespeare scholars, of which there are many, contain a minority who hold to the belief that William Shakespeare did not actually write the myriad plays and sonnets with which he is credited. The reasons are many -- he grew up in the merchant class, he was a commoner, there is no evidence of formal education, and there exist no copies of writing in the man's own hand. The theories abound as well -- that Ben Jonson wrote the plays, that the works are a result of a group of writers' efforts, there is even a theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the plays, filling the manuscripts with cryptic clues and cyphers to reveal his true identity. The most popular of theories, and the one "Anonymous" ascribes to, is that the works of the Bard were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Keep in mind, this is still a fringe theory. The general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but that doesn't keep director Roland Emmerich from spinning a wild Elizabethan tale in the truth's stead.

The story begins at the sunset of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a chaotic time in London as a variety of factions begin to gin up support for bids to the throne of the childless queen. The most powerful group come from Elizabeth's own advisors and hold that James, King of Scotland should ascend the throne of England. There is another faction, however, led by the Earl of Essex, who may or may not be the Queen's illegitimate son, and his golden, flowing haired compatriot, the Earl of Southhampton. These two are supported secretly by the Earl of Oxford, who is hated by the sneaky, sniveling royal councellor Robert Cecil.

Our first scene shows playwright Ben Jonson on the run from Cecil and the palace guards, who proceed to burn down the Globe Theatre in the search for him. Suddenly we flash back five years to a play that Jonson is staging with Oxford and Southhampton in attendance. The star of the play? A drunken lout by the name of Will Shakespeare. Then the palace guards burst in and arrest Jonson, leaving Shakespeare to drink and Oxford and Southhampton to scheme before Cecil convinces the Queen to send Essex off to fight in Ireland.

Confused yet? Well, just about the time you get your bearings, we flash back again, some 30 years this time, to a quaint little performance, attended by the queen, where it becomes apparent that the Earl of Oxford wrote "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as a 12-year-old. What?

As clumsily as the narrative is handled, the plot is kind of intriguing. The basic gist of the story is this: Oxford loves to write, but growing up in a Puritan household and attending a strictly protestant court, theater and poetry are thought to be only for commoners. So, he writes in secret, churning out the greatest theatrical works in the history of the English language, and then stacking them in his office for no one to see.

But the Earl soon realizes that words have power over the increasingly dissatisfied masses, and decides to use his secret gifts to foment insurrection. He first attempts to pass his works to Ben Jonson, to be published in his name, but Jonson has too much pride and considers Oxford a dilettante. For some reason, Jonson confides in Shakespeare, who just happens to be illiterate as well as a drunk. Will has no qualms about claiming authorship of the plays however, and soon becomes the most celebrated playwright in town. Not that it matters to Oxford, who is still pining for Queen Elizabeth, who he had a passionate affair with as a young man, and who may or may not have borne the Earl's son -- not Essex, a different son.

Wait. It's getting confusing again. OK, to sum up: Shakespeare's a drunken moron, Ben Jonson's a snob, the Earl of Oxford's a genius, and Elizabeth's a trollop. That's about got it.

While the story is utterly preposterous, and hard to follow to boot, "Anonymous" does have one thing going for it. It looks spectacular. Emmerich has put his not unsubstantial CGI resources to work on recreating London of the late 16th-century and the result is remarkable. Scenes of the street life and the bustling theater scene are very cool to watch, despite the ridiculous amount of intrigue going on in the background.

There are little details as well, that aren't drawn attention to, but that are highly educational. The theaters were open air, so if it rained on the actors, they had to just keep going. The theatrical roles were all played by men, not as a joke, but because women weren't allowed to act. The plays of the time were entertainment for the common man, not highbrow literature as we see them today. As a result, the performances were raucous, with participation from the audience. Think Spielberg, Michael Bay, and Judd Apatow.

Thus, the small pieces of "Anonymous" are well worth watching, even though the larger story defies credulity. In fact, "defies credulity" doesn't really cut it. My wife, who's read more books on Shakespeare than anyone I know, was ready to throw something heavy at the screen by the time the movie ended. So, history it's not.

Entertaining? I suppose that depends on how amusing you find an Elizabethan era trainwreck of epic proportions.

Grade: C-.

"Anonymous" is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence and sexuality.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.