Friday, October 28, 2011


DISCLAIMER: I am not a historian or a Shakespeare scholar so this review is based purely on the viewing of the film itself.  Any linked sources are for informational purposes only and are not an expression of an opinion on the validity or invalidity of the ideas, opinions or persons depicted in this film.

The new film Anonymous proposes a theory that the man the world knows as William Shakespeare was not who he seemed to be.  Was William Shakespeare merely a public face for the the world's greatest playwright?  After watching this film, you may begin to wonder.

The film is framed as a play taking place in modern day telling the story of the period piece portion of the film.  The Prologue, portrayed by Derek Jacobi, comes out on stage declaring a series of facts about Shakespeare; that no manuscripts were ever found written in his own hand, that he was illiterate, and that he spent his later years away from his life in theater entirely in a menial trade.  The Prologue implies that these are all facts that support the tale about to unfold.

Through a very well executed dissolve, the period piece portion of the film takes over for the majority of the film.  Once transported to the Elizabethan era, the usual suspects of the day appear: royals Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, playwrights Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, royal advisers William and Robert Cecil,  the earls of Essex, South Hampton and Oxford, and of course
William Shakespeare himself.

It is the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, that
Anonymous claims was the true scribe of Shakespeare's words.  From an early age the future Earl of Oxford is drafting and presenting his work for Queen Elizabeth I, the first production being a Midsummer Night's Dream.  However due to his station in life, it would be inappropriate for him to be presenting his own work, but he is compelled to have it performed.

To that end he enlists
Ben Johnson to be his public persona and offers to pay him handsomely to do so.  Johnson agrees to stage the play de Vere gives him, but cannot bring himself to take credit for the work and bills the play authored by Anonymous.  But as the audience calls for the playwright, company actor William Shakespeare comes out onto stage to take credit...and so begins the greatest scam of literary history?

The film portrays
de Vere as a man both artistically and politically passionate. In one instance he tells his wife that writing is the only way to silence the voices in his head and in the next he is using his plays to create grassroots political activism of the people against the corrupt forces at court who would eventually machinate the installation of the Scottish King James onto the English throne.

de Vere not only uses Shakespeare's public face to steer the opinion of the masses, he also expresses his romantic desires denied him through his marriage of circumstance.  To prevent the truth of a Hamletesque murder to come to light, de Vere is forced to marry the daughter of his former guardian William Cecil, one of Queen Elizabeth I's most trusted advisers.  But his heart still belongs to the virgin queen, Elizabeth I, whom according to Anonymous had at least three illegitimate children as members of her at court.

Unfortunately, all's well does not end well for the period piece players in Anonymousde Vere is blackmailed and nearly brought to bankruptcy by Shakespeare, it's implied Marlowe is killed by Shakespeare in an attempt to prevent himself from being exposed as a fraud, the Earls of Essex and South Hampton are convicted of treason and Essex beheaded, Queen Elizabeth I spends her remaining days a much frailer monarch having her mind poisoned by the Iagoesque Robert Cecil, and Johnson himself haunted by a promise made to de Vere to never betray his secret.  In fact, the only person to survive, in another Hamletesque fashion, is King James of Scotland, now King James I of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. 

Anonymous ends ultimately with a dissolve back to the theatre and with a final presentation by the Prologue.  The end credits are displayed against a backdrop of people leaving the theater.  This story within the story is a very powerful way to portray how the human mind often will process theater and film, by taking ourselves into the story directly with disregard to the surroundings themselves.
There are several moments in the film that provoke a strong reaction to the skills of the story and actors.  The two that most stand out for the Filmfreak Mafia are when the Earl of Essex barges in on Queen Elizabeth I while she is changing and when Ben Johnson meets de Vere for the last time.  Both exemplify the principle that narrative can leave a lasting impression without the assistance of mechanical and inorganic special effects.

When the the Earl of Essex storms in on the Queen changing, we see an older Elizabeth in an exceptionally vulnerable state.  She is in her dressing gown, her traditional red haired wig is off showing her natural white hair, and the expression on her face is unmistakable.  A combination of disbelief that the Earl has the audacity to enter without permission and absolute horror that he is seeing her in her natural state.  This moment of most raw humility is one that is captured exquisitely on film and enhanced by the actors portrayals themselves.

Ben Johnson first refused de Vere's offer and then as he saw the plays performed and Shakespeare get the credit and adulation, he resented both men for eclipsing his attempts at success.  He eventually reported on the production of Richard III to the Master of Revels, since Richard was being portrayed as a hunchback, a slight to Robert Cecil.  But as before and again now, de Vere knew he had made the right choice in choosing Johnsonde Vere poignantly says to him "You may have betrayed me, but you will never betray my words."

Some will say that Anonymous is attempting to bring up old theories regarding the validity of the works of William Shakespeare.  However, Anonymous is at its core a story, whether you choose to believe it, should not diminish the enjoyment you get from the portrays.  Isn't that the premise of the film itself?  To show that words are the most powerful tool at humankind's disposal?  

Anonymous shows how de Vere's words inspired the common man to rise up against perceived tyranny and to soften the heart of a monarch who had long ago banished him from her court.  The words themselves have the power, not the name their are attributed to.  Shakespeare's own words fit this story best "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..."

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