To be or not to be, that is certainly the subjective question of whether director Roland Emmerich’s new film will excite or disgust. Indeed, with the covering of one of our greatest playwright’s name’s in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in protest of Anonymous, William Shakespeare might be thrilled at the reignited interest in him.
In writer John Orloff and Emmerich’s version of Elizabethan events, the playwright (played by Rafe Spall) is actually an illiterate fool, a scheming charlatan who grabs the opportunity for easy fame – and to make money (it could be argued, like a former-day version of a reality TV contestant) – by laying claim to a series of plays written by Anonymous that delight the crowds at the local theatre. Unbeknown to all, these were actually penned by Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), to silence ‘the voices’ in his head. But as a member of the Royal Court, he is unable to be open about his creativity, or face disgrace. Meanwhile, the English throne, headed by theatre-loving Elizabeth I (played by both Joely Richardson and her real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave), is being manipulated by the Cecil Family of father William (David Thewlis) and later, by his son, Robert (Edward Hogg), so that a Scottish successor can take over.
Depending on how much you hold the bard dear to your heart, what must not be forgotten is this is an entertaining piece of imaginary work in itself – as suggested by the opening prologue by Derek Jacobi. The fact that there has always been speculation about the origins of Shakespeare’s works only goes to fuel how fitting the mystery is for cinematic purposes. Everyone likes to question history’s great mysteries when there is an ounce of doubt, from who shot JFK to the death of Princess Diana. So, without sounding flippant, the emphasis here is on ‘imaginary work’, and the film-makers certainly grab our attention.
This film is equally about the Royal Court power struggles, as it is the Shakespeare parts, and it is the former that is the film’s true momentum – not whether aristocrat De Vere will be found out. Hence, if period-based deception, temptation and pure decadence appeal, Emmerich’s rich ‘Old Masters’-style cinematography and sumptuous settings – some of which scream CGI – are a delight to behold.
Nevertheless, any upset at the ‘raw deal’ Shakespeare is getting in this, is not the question mark over the plays’ true author, but how the film-makers portray our great bard as an utter clown. Spall is certainly amusing, raising sniggers and having a ball in the role – if only employed to make Ifans look wise and credible as De Vere. But some might feel a little perturbed in the scene when Shakespeare asks De Vere whether ‘published’ means ‘in a book’? That said comedy makes a fool out of anyone, and this scene is little more ‘offensive’ than a TV comedy sketch, in all honesty, with Spall as Shakespeare as a parody of one of his own literary fools that provide the comical aspect in often a turbulent time.
These moments are also counterbalanced by the film’s celebration of the works in general, and there are some magical re-enactments of The Rose and The Globe theatres that make you yearn for a good Shakespearean evening out. The other delight is watching fine British acting at play, and the added surprise of Ifans in a serious role as de Vere that makes for a rousing spectacle, not too deft as to be unfitting for the whole gay affair, but with just enough deadpan theatrics to yet again remind you that you are watching a well-directed and staged interpretation of the reality.
Without going down the long, arduous road of comparing historical facts to add to the scholarly and fan-based denouncement of Anonymous, there are some extraordinary claims made that don’t add up after researching the characters. However, as we are prompted in the film’s lines to place our trust in the power of the words – these being merely another opinion to add to the rest of history’s sceptics, the overall sentiment after watching this is one of awe of the work in question, and that can only be a good thing.
**WATCH THE TRAILER HERE**