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Quills & thrills

Clever costume drama puts real intrigue into 'What's in a name?' premise

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The outrageous premise of the film Anonymous is that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. In fact, as portrayed by Rafe Spall, William Shakespeare was evidently a whoring, money-grubbing, nearly illiterate actor, not above either blackmail or murder.

Those are rather serious charges for such a speculative piece of historical fiction. Lest one take them too seriously, it is best to remember the source. Director Roland Emmerich last gave us the apocalyptic thriller 2012, which predicted the end of the world as we know it by December of next year, an event presumably predicted in the Mayan calendar.

It was best not to take 2012 too seriously either.

The film's snooty premise -- Shakespeare was too much a commoner to be a genius -- may be offensive, but the film's speculation is actually quite intriguing, certainly enough to torque a compelling costume drama. And when all is said and done, that is what Anonymous is.

As Emmerich and writer John Orloff have it, the plays and poetry were written by Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), a man torn between his impulsive inspiration and his obligations to the court of Queen Elizabeth.

The Earl is precariously placed. His father-in-law, Elizabeth's conniving, puritanical adviser Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis), engineered De Vere's loveless marriage to his daughter and is intent on keeping the Earl's literary ambitions likewise suppressed.

But amid the court intrigues and power plays, De Vere happens to observe the potency of London theatre and resolves to have his voice heard by having his plays performed, giving credit to up-and-coming playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto). His motivation is to protect his secret love child, the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), who has placed himself in harm's way by supporting the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) in a bid to succeed Queen Elizabeth.

When Jonson declines, the authorship is claimed by Shakespeare, a charming boob who cannot, when challenged, write the letter "i" on a manuscript, much less a Hamlet soliloquy.

If you think that's convoluted, well, as Shakespeare wrote, you ain't seen nothin' yet. (Hmm, was it Shakespeare or Al Jolson who said that? In the spirit of Anonymous, who cares?)

By any standards, the story is densely packed. For a Roland Emmerich film -- the man who gave us the rebooted Godzilla, remember -- it seems an impossible Gordian knot of intrigue, flashback, plot, counter-plot and counter-counter-plot.

Certainly, one is forced to become accustomed to Emmerich's tendency to leap from era to era: one minute, the elderly, doddering queen is played by Vanessa Redgrave and the next she's played by Redgrave's daughter, Joely Richardson, as a hottie bent on seducing young De Vere.

But the film deserves the attention it requires. Certainly a familiarity with the body of work pays off, as De Vere uses the character of Polonius in Hamlet in a veiled attack on Sir William, and writes the entirety of Richard III in an attempt to direct the theatre-going mob against Sir William's equally conniving hunchbacked son, Robert (Edward Hogg).

It turns out the pen is not mightier than the sword after all.

Ifans makes for a great, dissipated hero and the rest of the cast acquits itself with appropriate gravitas.

And when removed from the obligation to dazzle his audience with digital spectacle, it turns out Emmerich is a capable hand, laying out the intricacies of this story in a reasonably concise and tasteful manner.

Challenging? Sure. But if the groundlings of the Globe Theatre could be so overtly moved by Henry V's address to his troops, it does not seem much to ask of contemporary audiences to brush up on their Shakespeare... or whomever it was who wrote that wonderful stuff.

Other voices

Selected excerpts from reviews of Anonymous.

Anonymous is ridiculous, and like Oliver Stone's JFK it sells its political conspiracy theories by weight and by volume. But dull, it's not.

-- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune


A splendid experience: the dialogue, the acting, the depiction of London, the lust, jealousy and intrigue.

-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times


Much ado about nothing, indeed.

-- Moira McDonald, Seattle Times


The more far-fetched the idea, it seems, the more strenuous the effort to pass it off as authentic.

-- David Denby, New Yorker


A handsomely staged and decidedly straight-ahead costume drama under Roland Emmerich's nearly CGI-free direction.

-- Robert Koehler, Variety

It's more of an interesting curio to a blockbuster career but there's fun to be had here if you look hard enough.

-- Philip De Semlyen, Empire


Anonymous is, at the very least, a curiosity, one with some clever casting and a very fine performance at its core.

-- S. T. VanAirsdale, Movieline


Dubious history aside, Anonymous is a well-acted yarn that also is a tribute to the unstoppable force of art -- even if it implies that only an aristocrat could create it.

-- Claudia Puig, USA Today


Surprisingly, this is easily director Roland Emmerich's best film.

-- Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter


-- Compiled by Shane Minkin


A well-polished cowpat that will confuse and bore those who know nothing about Shakespeare and incense those who know almost anything.

-- David Edlestein, New York magazine


Roland Emmerich's meticulously crafted and often well-acted exposé of the "real" William Shakespeare is shocking only in that it is rather good.

-- Damon Wise, Guardian (U.K.)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2011 D1

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About Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

His dad was Winnipeg musician Jimmy King, a one-time columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. One of his brothers is a playwright. Another is a singer-songwriter.

Randall has been content to cover the entertainment beat in one capacity or another since 1990.

His beat is film, and the job has placed him in the same room as diverse talents, from Martin Scorsese to Martin Short, from Julie Christie to Julia Styles. He has met three James Bonds (four if you count Woody Allen), and director Russ Meyer once told him: "I like your style."

He really likes his job.


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