I thought the silliest shakedown I’d see on film in 2011 would be the gangster in Bullhead threatening “Make sure you sell your cows at market,” but then came Anonymous and this beauty; “Where are the plays?” asked under torture. Anonymous is a very silly movie, one that suggests that Shakespeare did not, in fact, write any of the plays he has been credited with and was nothing more than an actor, and a bit of an idiot at that. The plays were written by one Edward, Duke of Oxford, who, because of his station couldn’t be seen doing something as shameful and disgusting as writing plays. Alas, he must write, and of course, he is good at it, he wrote the greatest plays in the history of the world, he just let someone else take the credit. After seeing Shame, which deals with addiction frankly and seriously, what am I to make of a scene that includes Edward’s wife saying “My God…” with a gasp. “You’re writing again. After you promised.”
The movie, though, is also a lot of fun if for no other reason to watch Rhys Ifans, as Edward, Rafe Spall, as Shakespeare, Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth and David Thewlis, as a royal vizier, chew the lavish and well decorated scenery. The costumes are also immaculate and it’s kind of exhilarating to watch a major studio back a project that gets everyone done up so beautifully and then have them behave so preposterously. It begins on a modern day stage and steals a sequence from Branagh’s Henry V (1989) as the stage transforms into our Elizabethan setting, it even steals Derek Jacobi from Branagh, to deliver the prologue. Of course, Branagh stole his opening from Olivier’s version of Henry V (1944) and in a movie that’s about ownership of ideas, perhaps that’s just as well.
Anonymous is directed by Roland Emmerich, known for disaster movies like Independence Day (1996) and 2012 (2009) and I suppose the apocalypse here is more internal, instead of blowing up the White House, we’re blowing up the literary equivalent, though there are still explosions in Anonymous, don’t misunderstand me. Just because it’s the 17th century doesn’t mean we can’t have some explosions.
The scenes in the theater community have a lot of charm, especially the jealousy of the other playwrights and the boorishness of Shakespeare himself, played brilliantly by Spall as a bottom feeding opportunist, and the court scenes of political maneuvering, as Edward competes with Thewlis’ character for control of the throne, provide meaty moments of great import, that don’t make a lot of sense but are fun to watch. The movie is as flimsy as a wet paper sack but it has a headlong energy and leaps through its story without abandon. It reminded me of those teenage updating of Shakespeare’s work or fairy tales, that know neither the notes nor the rhythm of the source material but gives it a good go. I was half expecting a hit pop song to show up in the big finale. Sadly, no, but how about the Mozart on the soundtrack some 300 years before it was written – perhaps Edward wrote his work too.
If Anonymous wanted to be more than it is, I might denigrate its insipid, clumsy and overfull plot or the fact that it doesn’t take the time to develop either of its two narratives, but that’s part of it’s charm. The movie knows what it is. If Anonymous was a Shakespeare, or should I say an Edward, Duke of Oxford character, it might be Feste, it’s frivolous and a little melancholy but, like Lady Olivia’s father, I took much delight in it.