Movie #15: Anonymous

This movie starts out with an interesting premise (and a prologue by Shakespearean heavyweight, Derek Jacobi). He describes, with poetic and dramatic flair, some of the facts we know about William Shakespeare the playwright and leads to how little we know about Shakespeare the man. According to this story, Shakespeare was a hammy, buffoonish actor who got the credit for the works of the Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans). If this movie (fictional or true) began seeking to fill in the blanks about Shakespeare, it definitely got distracted by focusing on the life of the Earl of Oxford (who it posits was the “actual” Shakespeare). Relatively little time is spent in the theatre and with characters there, rather much of the attention is given to the court of Queen Elizabeth I and the manipulations going on there. There is a lot of confusing time-jumping between the earlier days when Elizabeth was younger (played by Joely Richardson) and later when she was much older (played by Richardson’s real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave). It was kind of cool to have mother and daughter play the Queen at different ages. If only the depiction of her was a bit better and more interesting. As a younger woman, she’s a bit of a cougar, lusting after the young Earl of Oxford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who I am not a fan of, but apparently gets repeatedly cast as every young, beautiful, male character with a British accent). He writes his plays and stages them for her at court. Skipping forward, she’s kind of a bordering-senile old woman and when she hears about plays being performed which sound familiar, she doesn’t quite connect the dots (at least it doesn’t seem like she does). Oxford has been having his plays performed in town, handing them to Ben Johnson (who eventually becomes one of the most famous English writers in his own right) to pass on to Shakespeare. Oxford’s got the soul of a poet (and apparently mad skills as a playwright) and despite the political situation he finds himself in (which prevents him from openly working as a writer), he cannot resist discretely watching his plays performed. What follows is a convoluted and dull story about intrigue over Elizabeth’s succession and her illegitimate sons. The tone of this movie is all mixed up, going from courtly drama to theatrical farce to historical romance. All the while, none of the characters seem very likeable or interesting. The scenes are dingy, dark, and drear (the flashbacks are a bit more colourful, but not much) and the story unfolds in bits and pieces. The script is also a bit murky about what plots and schemes are going on. (The more I describe it, the more I can see how this could have been a very intriguing film if it had followed more of a straightforward arc, kept the Shakespeare stuff to a minimum, and given the actors meatier scenes and a better-written script.) Instead, all these soapy, larger-than-life pieces of the story just don’t come together to form a compelling movie. A highlight for me were those play-within-a-play scenes where the performers were doing actual lines from Shakespeare’s plays. Hearing timeless, incredibly-well-written lines performed served only to diminish this movie’s script by comparison. (2.5 out of 5)

15 down, 35 to go!

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