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Dan Lybarger

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Should This Film Remain Anonymous? A Review in Poem

Posted: 11/01/11 06:20 PM ET

I came neither to
bury Emmerich,
nor do I praise him
for his assault on
establishment thinking.

With Anonymous,
German director
Roland Emmerich
is moving away
from his specialty
of ravaging the world
with scientifically
dubious plagues and
catastrophes. He
and screenwriter John
Orloff instead go
after one of the
most sacred cows in
western culture, the
Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare.

In Anonymous, William
Shakespeare (played by Rafe
Spall) is nothing more
than a front for the
Earl of Oxford (Rhys
Ifans). The movie
follows the not-so-novel premise that
Shakespeare wasn't at
all capable of
writing plays. Mark Twain,
Orson Welles and Sir
Derek Jacobi (who is
in the movie) have
all expressed doubts
in Shakespeare's claim.

Shakespeare, in this telling,
is an amoral drunk
with limited acting
chops who provides a
cover for Oxford's
political plays.

The Earl is trying
to use the power
of his verse to help
the Earl of Essex
(Sam Reid) succeed the
throne once Elizabeth
(Vanessa Redgrave)
goes to that kingdom
in the sky. Advised
by William Cecil
(David Thewlis) and
his hunchbacked offspring
Robert (Edward Hogg),
the Queen leans more to
James of Scotland, which makes
many in the court nervous.

Because his plays have
obvious potshots at
the Cecils, to whom
he's related by an
unhappy marriage, the
Earl decides that he
must keep his authorship
a secret. Groundlings
know that Robert's hump
is represented in
Richard III's frame.
So the Earl tries to get
Ben Jonson (Sebastian
Armesto) to pose
as the author. He
refuses, so the fame-hungry Shakespeare takes
credit for the Earl's skill.

I have no problem
with Emmerich's claims.
This is a movie, not
a history lesson.
I grew up loving
Shakespeare, not because
I was forced to read
the plays in school, but
because my mother,
a teacher, would watch
them with me on the
TV and explain what
the characters said.

Throughout the movie,
John Orloff has the
characters saying
that words are power.
I agree, but the
movie would be more
engaging if we
could hear some more of
Shakespeare's words and less
of Orloff's. When the
plays are presented,
we only get a
hint of the grace and
the force of the plays
and of the sonnets.

It's more engaging
to hear Branaugh yell
his way through Henry
V
(in which Sir
Derek appears) or
to watch Sir Ian
McKellen limp by
as Richard III.
The complicated
plot Anonymous has
is more soap-oprean
than Shakespearean.

Court intrigue isn't
enough for Orloff.
He has to add some
incest, betrayal
and portrays the Queen
as a young strumpet
(Joely Richardson,
Redgrave's daughter) in
flashbacks and a half
senile wreck in the
present. Portrayals
of Shakespeare, the Queen
and the Cecils are
so broad that the actors
seem like Muppets. If
it's hard to believe
that a country boy
from Stratford wrote the
plays, it is even
harder to believe
this story. Sadly,
the frenzied tone does
not provide much help.

If the world was on
the verge of falling
apart, as it does in
Emmerich's other
film The Day After
Tomorrow
, it would
be easier to
hear the actors shout
every line. Instead, the
busyness seems like
a way to charge a
lifeless storyline.

As a result, lines
that should be funny
fall flat, and somber
ones inspire giggles.
When Oxford's wife
(Helen Baxendale)
laments that he is
writing by saying
he, like Nero, is
playing a flute while
Rome burns. He replies that
it was a fiddle.
Actually, if he
played on anything,
it was a lyre. I'm
getting pedantic.

Emmerich's stately
production is great
to look at, but it
only magnifies
how empty the whole
thing feels. As for
the theory that pins
down the film, I'd much
rather read Contested Will,
a new book by James
Shapiro, which helps
explain how the doubts
originated. Not
surprisingly, the
director calls the
book's author a liar.

Emmerich can say
what he likes, but I
would rather go
read whomever wrote
the great folio.

 

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