$7.50 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50
German-born director Roland Emmerich is best known for helming epics. According to IMDB, his three favorite movies are “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno,” and “Earthquake.” For those with short memories, each is a disaster flick with a cast of thousands. The trick to making epics is to keep the plot simple. ”The Poseidon Adventure” centered on a band of plucky passengers making their way out of a capsized ocean liner. “The Towering Inferno” was about saving folks in a cocktail party atop a blazing San Francisco skyscraper.
“Anonymous,” however, while centered on the premise that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, is about court intrigues, love affairs, religious politics, obsession, and incest in the reign of England’s Elizabeth I. It moves so quickly between about four eras in which characters mostly are of such disparate ages that the same one has to be played by three or four different actors. In a cast of thousands, just about every guy sports a Van Dyke beard and wears either tights or a velvet robe. A scorecard and baseball uniforms would help tell who is playing whom.
That is unfortunate because any picture in which Vanessa Redgrave appears is a must-see. The most legendary living actress of the English-speaking theater never fails to command a stage or screen. As the aged Queen Elizabeth I she proves that she can subordinate her star power to ensemble acting.
Bookended by Derek Jacobi as himself, opening and closing a Broadway play about Shakespeare, plot moves largely through flasbacks culminating with a flash forward. A nobleman, who turns out to be one of several bastard sons of Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Oxford, played by Rhys Ifans in maturity, has neglected his estates to write plays. He kidnaps Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and offers the latter a deal he can’t refuse: Produce my plays, and I will make you a star. Just keep my name out of it. If not, may woe befall you. Jonson, having read the first script he is given, is afraid that the censors will arrest him. He enlists a drunken actor, William Shakespeare, played by Rafe Spall, to front for him as the author and director. He needn’t have done so. The plays are all hits. Will Shakespeare becomes the toast of London.
Oxford & Co. run afoul of the Cecil family, whose patriarch, William (David Thewlis) functions as a sort of fixer and prime minister to the queen. He and his son, hunchback Robert (Edward Hogg), who inherits his role after the former’s death, are also puritans who think the theater is an evil (in contrast to the queen) and promote King James of Scotland as her heir.
It happens that Elizabeth does not know that the Earl of Oxford is her son. The young Elizabeth, played by Joely Richardson has an affair with him which produces yet another son, the Earl of Southhampton (Xavier Samuel), who in adulthood gets involved with the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) in some sort of intrigue to oust the Cecils. Those familiar with British history will note that the Cecil family endures to this day and produced Arthur James Balfour, Tory Prime Minister early in the 20th Century and later Foreign Secretary in the coalition government under David Lloyd George during the First World War.
The key to thwarting the Cecils is a one-time performance of a Shakespeare play, calculated to incite the mob. Jonson rats out the plot to the Cecils and both Essex and Southampton are arrested and sentenced to death. Oxford, having been informed of his progeny by the Cecils, now intervenes with the queen to plead for their son’s life. Talk about an oedipal moment! At least he doesn’t blind himself after learning that Jocasta is his mother.
Once auds have digested all pic’s complications, this 130 minute, PG-13 rated epic at least ends in a neat dénouement. Conspiracy theorists, such as Oliver Stone, may go to their graves believing that its premise is fact. Five hundred years and countless productions later, does it really matter? Who actually wrote some of the greatest works of the English-speaking theater is historical trivia. The author died centuries ago. The plays live on.
Tech credits excel. Kudos go to Sebastian T. Krawinkel for very convincing set design. Lensing and sound recording are more than up to par. But despite the PG-13 rating and the swordplay, kids won’t understand it. They will need a scorecard.
—30—Anonymous on Netflix