By Joseph McAleer
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — To be or not to be Shakespeare? That is the question at the heart of "Anonymous" (Columbia), which takes up the old and debunked chestnut of a conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare was a fraud, never having written a play or sonnet in his entire life.
Director Roland Emmerich, having rampaged through New York City in 1998’s "Godzilla" and nearly destroyed the entire planet in "Independence Day" (1996) and "2012" (2009), sets out to humiliate the Bard of Avon. His style is part Oliver Stone, part Dan Brown in "Da Vinci Code" mode — playing very loose with the facts and changing history to suit the agenda of John Orloff’s script.
Students and scholars, have no fear: "Anonymous" ultimately sinks under the weight of its own preposterousness as well as an incest-ridden story line that is both lewd and farcical.
"Anonymous" purports to show that the real author of Shakespeare’s works was Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th earl of Oxford. We meet Edward as a child prodigy, performing "his" play ("A Midsummer Night’s Dream") for the young Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson). The monarch is enchanted, and young Edward has a guaranteed future in the royal court.
Edward later marries the daughter of William Cecil (David Thewlis), the queen’s puritanical adviser who considers all art to be offensive and degrading. Undeterred, Edward continues to write in secret — dozens of manuscripts, all labeled Anonymous. He also beds his biggest fan, Elizabeth, who coos, "I can’t decide whether you are Prince Hal or Romeo."
Unbeknownst to Edward, the queen is with child, and the affair ends. Fast-forward 20 years and Edward, bored and unhappy, longs to see his work performed on stage. He arranges with the playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to have "his" work "Henry V" staged under Jonson’s name.
Disaster strikes in the form of an interloper, Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). An unscrupulous actor, Shakespeare claims to be the author of the play, and the crowd embraces him. Shakespeare then blackmails Edward, and the greatest literary star of the age is born.
"Anonymous" really goes off the rails in its totally unredeemed portrayal of Shakespeare as a cockney-accented drunk, a literal illiterate (rather difficult for an author), and a murderer who does in rival Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) when Marlowe discovers his secret.
As the now-aging, not-so-virgin-after-all Queen Elizabeth, Vanessa Redgrave chews up the scenery in a fright wig. Demented yet girlish (gothic shades of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"), she pines for her young lover, the earl of Essex (Sam Reid) — who is eventually revealed to be one of her many illegitimate children!
As Cecil says, "You never know with the Tudors. They had such strange taste in bedfellows."
Viewers will need strange taste indeed to find "Anonymous" cinema as they like it.
The film contains several incestuous and adulterous relationships, nongraphic premarital sexual activity, and some bloody violence. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.