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

Reeling It In

Posted: February 23, 2012 - 9:39am  |  Updated: February 23, 2012 - 9:41am

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.

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howard16 02/23/12 - 11:50 am
Your review of Anonymous

Anytime I read the word "preposterous" in connection with the Shakespeare authorship inquiry, it tells me only one thing, that the writer has not taken the trouble to investigate the evidence for Edward de Vere, which, in my view, is considerable and compelling.

If you want to talk about "defying credulity," concluding that a man who had little or no education, whose children were illiterate, who never left any writing other than six unreadable signatures with his name spelled differently in each one, who never traveled outside of London, who spent much time and effort engaging in petty lawsuits, who could not read books in French, Italian, or Spanish yet used untranslated material as his source material, who never left any books in his will, who left no letters, no correspondence, who did not elicit a single eulogy at his death was the greatest writer in the English language is about the most incredulous thing I've ever heard.

artguyla 02/24/12 - 07:14 am
Is the belief in Oxford as Shakespeare really that "fringe"

First of all, I tend to agree with the review. The movie is both good, and confusing, and annoying in its tweeking of historical facts. Shakespeare himself took liberties with history, but did so more effectively. The premise of the film, namely, that the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote under a pen-name "Shake-spear", is not as "fringe" as Chris Jenness says it is. Arguably the two greatest Shakespearean actors of our generation, Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi, do not believe the man from Stratford was the true author. Two SC justices are Oxfordian, based upon the evidence in his favor. I invite anyone interested in the greatest mystery of all time to read up on Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, via the internet. Joseph Sobran wrote a short book on Oxford and the Authorship question that is a good introduction. Based upon evidence and common sense, Edward de Vere is the true author, unless one believes someone who never left England could describe down to houses and streets the places in Italy that de Vere went to in 1575, when he became indedted to money-lenders in Venice, forcing the sale of some of his estates. When one aligns de Vere's life with Hamlet, it is perfect registration. In fact, Polonius is accepted by Stratfordians as being modeled after de Vere's father in law, William Cecil. The sad fact of this mystery is that Stratford is a huge cash cow for England, it's 2nd greatest tourist attraction, and money rules our species. I wish the movie was better, as Oxford needs to be accepted as "Shake-speare", in order to understand the Shakespeare Canon correctly. To think it was all made up by someone without an education is absurd. Just read the stuff. It's obviously the wordings of a HIGHLY EDUCATED PERSON, who views the common folk as fodder for jokes primarily, and writes of royal intrigue from an insider's view. Bismarck commented on that, that only an insider would know of such things. The list of "fringe" doubters is impressive, and includes Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Orson Welles, Michael York, Charles Chaplin, Paul Nitze, Mark Twain, etc.

William Ray
William Ray 02/24/12 - 07:04 pm
Shakspere of Stratford is the fringe theory

I wrote before but apparently it did not go through. I understand why you would be put off by the schlocky history and antics of Anonymous. But you are wrong that questioning the Stratford Shakespeare is a fringe theory. It is the status quo narrative itself that is illogical and false. It has adopted the original ruse to hide the authorship of the Shakespeare canon after the author Oxford and the counterfeit Shakspere had both died. It was the expedient answer to remove the potentially subversive nature of the plays and poems from the aristocratic genius who wrote them and place them under the identity of a harmless burgher. The First Folio, the Shakespeare Monument, and the forced identity of Shakspere=Shakespeare are all elements of the ruse, all false. Shakspere couldn't read a line or write a word, but as a money-lender he didn't have to. Anonypompus missed an opportunity to really tell the history, but should get some credit for questioning the Stratford fable. With a little reading, you will see what happened and how the Shakespeare canon parallels the life of Oxford in every particular.

cbeard 02/28/12 - 06:12 pm

Another self-congratulatory piece of Eurocentric historical crap. BOO!

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