By Alexandra Ley
What if the dramatic genius of the western world was illiterate? What if a nobleman had actually written literature’s most famous stanzas after having slept with the most powerful woman England had ever seen? What if everything the world knew about the great writer William Shakespeare was the result of an elaborate cover-up? Rolan Emmerich’s film Anonymous pushes the creative envelope to the extreme when it comes to answering that hot-button question of “who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?” After seeing this film, the best answer might be “you shouldn’t have asked.”
The cast assembled for this film makes it worth the $6.75 voucher. Renowned actress Vanessa Redgrave shines as the elder Queen Elizabeth I, and her daughter Joely Richardson plays the role of the younger Elizabeth with style and grace throughout the alternating moods of angst and regality that befit a “Virgin Queen.” Sebastian Armesto gives a powerful performance in the role of Ben Jonson, and while Rhys Ifans is saddled with too many wistful dramatic stares for the character Edward de Vere to truly be taken seriously, the duo’s interactions effectively anchor the film and provide for an emotional conclusion.
Although the production team succeeded at the casting table, some creative choices fell flat. The most disappointing was the portrayal of Shakespeare as a boastful drunk and often completely incoherent. Although a major driving force of this film is the fact that William Shakespeare is not the literary paragon that we all revere, portraying him on the complete opposite end of the spectrum may be overdoing it, and for avid fans of Shakespeare, hits a little close to home. As a result of this, Rafe Spall’s performance as Shakespeare becomes effective comic relief where it was not quite desired. Also a questionable production choice is the framing of the story as a play on a New York stage—the first scene shows an actor rushing to make his entrance and in the final scene, audience members get up and leave, just as real the movie-viewers. While thought-provoking, this idea of a “play-within-a-movie” is never expanded upon aside from those bookending scenes, leaving the piece feeling somewhat unfinished.
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The film was, for lack of a better adjective, perplexing—it constantly flip-flopped between time periods, and the audience had to figure out for themselves when different actors filled the same roles due to aging characters. Writer John Orloff did an excellent job of laying out the religious and political conflicts that fueled much of the plot, but clear factual errors included in the script were almost ludicrous enough to order his imprisonment in the Tower and the cheap references to Shakespearean plays seemed to be begging for groans. The story constructed for the sake of this film simply asked too much of the viewer: too much suspension of disbelief, too much ignorance, and too much inference for a single movie-viewing experience.
Although Anonymous is a well-made film in terms of its cinematography, acting, and use of computer graphics (the animated crowd scenes, while most definitely saved a lot for the film budget-wise, are nearly indistinguishable from live-action ones), the story develops into a narrative too confusing and too kooky to really satisfy a viewer, especially one with a genuine interest in Shakespearean or British history.
Alexandra is a junior at Barnard and Contributing Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.