Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Anonymous’ plays out Oxfordian Shakespeare theory

By Alissa Mesibov

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The movie “Anonymous” is about the playwright of “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and 35 other plays regarded as some of the finest examples of English literature. The film is not, however, about William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a relatively minor and ultimately fraudulent character in director Roland Emmerich’s recent alternate history film.

The film, which had a limited release last week before its nation-wide release on Saturday, revolves around Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. In this version of history, commonly known as the Oxfordian theory, de Vere pays Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson to publish his own plays under Jonson’s name. However, the bumbling and pompous Shakespeare takes credit instead, leading to the twisted events of the film.

The story’s bookends, taking place in a modern theater, are a nice touch. Regardless of who wrote the plays, they are meant for a live theater, and the film makes this clear.

Director Roland Emmerich had a clear vision that he stuck to throughout the entirety of the film. His directorial focus is evident in his actors’ interactions with one another and with the thematic cohesion of the film. Emmerich’s only downfall is that the film takes far too long to set up the plot. By the time the conflict is introduced, the film is nearly half way through.

“Anonymous” is the wonderfully evil twin of “Shakespeare in Love.” Where the 1999 film is full of comedic romance and wit, “Anonymous” is packed with every element of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Murder? Check. Incest? That’s also there. Madness? Of course. Power struggle for the throne? It’s a necessity.

Had the role of the Earl of Oxford not been divided between Jamie Campbell Bower and Rhys Ifans, as the young and old versions of the Earl, respectively, Ifans could have been looking at plentiful nominations with the approach of awards season. Though Ifans played de Vere with intensity, there was not enough of an emotional stretch provided by the screenplay for his counterpart Bower as the older Earl.

Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth can do no wrong. It is a simple matter of fact. In her limited scenes, she manages to convey dozens of emotions and conflicts without overwhelming the audience. Despite also having another actress play the younger version of herself, Redgrave stands out. Queen Elizabeth has been the good luck charm for many other actresses in the past. Cate Blanchett was nominated for “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” while Judi Dench won for “Shakespeare in Love.” It remains to be seen if Redgrave, arguably the best actress of the three, can continue the trend.

John Orloff’s screenplay is fantastic when focusing on individual lines, but confuses when examining the overall product. The film was packed with quotable lines. After being asked if he had been arrested before, Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson replies, “I’m a writer. Of course I have been bloody well arrested.” However, the multitudinous plot lines, ranging from political struggles to the protection of De Vere and Elizabeth’s son to, of course, the success of the plays, become a bit muddled.

Whether the idea was in the script or was Emmerich’s invention, there was one moment that was disappointing beyond words. Shakespeare goes crowd surfing. It is so easy to fall into the world of the film, but this momentarily pulls the audience right back due to its utter absurdity.

As with any period drama, the costumes will be celebrated. Even the groundlings, or the poorest people who stood on the ground while watching plays at the Globe, are subtly elaborate.

Overall, the film feels like a slap in the face to longtime fans of Shakespeare’s works. It is difficult to accept the idea that Shakespeare was not merely plagiarizing ideas, but unrightfully claiming the rights to entire plays. In the end, there is solace to be found in the notion that while it might not have been William Shakespeare, there still lived a poetic genius.

Alissa Mesibov can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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