Sunday, October 30, 2011


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Anonymous (directed by Ronald Emmerlich, screenplay by John Orloff) questioning William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays and sonnets is bound to ruffle feathers and produce knee jerk rejections comparable to knee-jerk rejections (usually by America's right) of Oliver Stone's famous film JFK (1991) about the John F. Kennedy's assassination.

I'd actually prefer to compare Anonymous' portrayal of Elizabeth I's reign in England to the portrayal of the papacy of Alexander VI (and his family...) in the recent cable television series The Borgias.  To be sure, Pope Alexander VI did father many children, made one of his sons a Cardinal and married off (and annulled the marriages) of his daughter Lucretia according to the whims of politics on the still fractured Italian peninsula.

Yet as objectively morally corrupt as Pope Alexander VI's reign was, the recent series about him did still play with the historical facts in ways that were almost certainly untrue.  For instance, as I noted in my review of the Borgia series, one episode had one of Alexander VI's sons actually strangle an Ottoman prince (at the request of the Ottoman emperor ...) with his own hands.  That just doesn't seem comprehensible.  That Alexander VI as a recognized ruler of a sovereign state at the time, the Papal States, would do such a favor (of getting rid of an inconvenient rival) for another sovereign is plausible.  After all, taking a page from our own recent post 9/11 history: We, the United States do not torture.  So we've had the Egyptians and Jordanians torture people for us... Yet, to have Alexander VI's own son do the job with his bare hands would be akin to having a film or television series showing our former vice-President Dick Cheney personally water-boarding inmates at Guantanamo Bay (or more secret prisons at "undisclosed locations" around the globe).  Yes, Cheney was (and remains) all for torture.  But would he do so himself?  Probably not.

Returning now to Anonymous.  The film suggests that Elizabeth I had at least three illegitimate sons by three different lovers, two of them while Queen of England.  How could that be?  The film has her disappearing on "a journey" for the duration of at least one of her pregnancies.  Would not the royal court in London miss her?  Would not her mortal enemy Philip II of Spain catch wind of news like this and use the opportunity to strike England then?

Yet the Tudors (2007-2010) themselves were portrayed in another recent cable-series as being more than a bit randy.  And the stories of the Czars, the Chinese Emperors, modern dictators and their families (like the recent shocker The Devil's Double about a body double of Uday Hussein), are all filled with stories of seemingly unbounded hypocrisy and corruption.   So what to make of it?  I would propose two options: (1) The powerful were always quite capable of doing unspeakable things and covering them up ("Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely..."). (2) One should view "historical" films with a critical eye, recognizing obvious places where playwrights, film-makers and story-tellers may be tempted to play with the truth to tell a better, more compelling story.  Indeed, Oliver Stone has at times appealed to Shakespeare's historical plays as a means understanding his own "historical" movie-making: historical story-telling need not be about getting all the facts right, rather about getting the essence of the era/man/etc correct.

So whatever one may say about Oliver Stone's JFK, there are aspects of the official version of events that are suspicious.  And it's not simply an "incongruency" that "a loser shot like Lee Harvey Oswald killed a President."  That "loser" Oswald, had a very strange (suspicious) life:  He was a United States Marine.  He defected to Russia, returned a few years later no questions asked, was taped on television talk shows in New Orleans expressing strong opinions about Fidel Castro, and then some months later shot the President.  And he himself was assassinated on live television by someone, Jack Ruby, with underworld ties, as he was being transferred from the Dallas jail before any public hearing.  The case simply doesn't smell right, no matter how much Oswald has been portrayed as "simply a loser."  If he was such a loser, why kill him before he was allowed to speak?

Similarly, in Anonymous, the salacious details ultimately don't really matter.  If nothing else, the film does remind the viewer Elizabethan era was a dangerous one.  I remember a conversation with a number of more intellectual Catholics a number of years back, where one (not a Shakespeare scholar but someone who was certainly fairly well read on the matter) who argued to me that Shakespeare may have been Catholic.  His proof: that Shakespeare scrupulously did not refer to Catholic-Protestant controversies at all in his work.  If he were Protestant, like say John Milton, he would have probably made his Protestantism clear.  Instead, Shakespeare kept his mouth shut on the matter.  That's the point that this fairly well read Catholic on the matter was making.  I'd add here that while Shakespeare did not refer to religion much in his work, he did write a heck of a lot about Italy, which would seem rather odd and perhaps even suspicious at a time when Elizabethan England was in a death duel with both the Pope and Catholic King Philip II of Spain.  It could be something like "Reading Lolita in Tehran" today.

In any case, it should be becoming clear that being a playwright in Elizabethan England wouldn't necessarily have been the safest of occupations.  A person of learning writing at the time could have had reason to write under a pseudonym or perhaps even feed his work to a lower class "distributor" (in this case "theater owner") to protect himself.  Because lets face it, some of Shakespeare's work could be interpreted as being "political" by a paranoid regime (or paranoid functionaries in a paranoid regime).  To put oneself a step-away from its production could have been safer for the writer.  I would note here that people fairly well known people, including Mark Twain, did not believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford really wrote Shakespeare's plays.  So while the current film, could be clumsy and swinging from the chandeliers salacious in its argumentation, the question of Shakespeare's authorship (or ought to be) more serious than one could initially think.  Either that, or Shakespeare was one very, very brave man.  A very good article on the question (that ultimately and resolutely defends William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays) can be found, of course, on wikipedia.

So other than that, how was the film? ;-)

From a technical point of view, the film was certainly excellent.  The sets were magnificent.  One got a feel of what it would have been like to be like sitting (or standing on the floor level) watching one of Shakespeare's plays at the Globe Theater in London at the time.  London is portrayed as (what a surprise...) gloomy, rainy most of the time.  However, as in other recent, more "political" films about the era -- Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007)  the rain and general darkness/gloominess are probably intended to be more than just a statement on English climate.  Rather they are intended to be metaphors to the darkness whole period.  As I mentioned above, the political dimensions of various plays (like Henry V, Hamlet, Macbeth and especially Richard III) were probably stressed in this film more than most people would initially think.

The film portrays Elizabeth I (played in her younger years by Joely Richardson and later by Vanessa Redgrave) as more of a ditz than I would have liked, manipulated heavily by her advisor William Cecil (played by David Thewlis).  William Cecil was also presented as the caretaker/foster father and later father-in-law of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford  (played in his younger years by Jamie Cambell Bower and later by Ryan Ilfans) who the movie presents as the real author of Shakespeare's plays.

Edward, the Earl of Oxford a poet/writer is presented as hating William Cecil's narrow, arguably Talabanish, Protestantism, one which viewed poetry as basically vanity.  (Since Cecil was his father-in-law, the movie plays up the scene in Hamlet when Hamlet somewhat comically kills Ofelia's father Laertes "look a rat" (stabbing him as he was hiding behind a curtain).  Laertes was to become Hamlet's father-in-law and Laertes served as the Queen's advisor in the play).

Shakespeare himself (played by Rafe Spall) was portrayed in an exaggerated manner as a baffoon, someone who as an actor had learned to read but who'd utterly incapable of writing plays, let alone poetry in his own right.

A key character in the film is another playwright, Ben Johnson (played by Sebastian Armesto).  Johnson is introduced as a playwright already in trouble with the authorities for the supposed politics in his works (even though he produced only low class comedies).  The Earl of Oxford springs from jail but then under the condition that Johnson produce his, the Earl's, plays under the name Anonymous.  The anonymity of the playwright was supposed to actually protect both the Earl and Johnson.  However, something soon goes wrong, after a particularly stirring performance of Henry V, the crowd demands that the author take a bow.  The Earl's in the stands, Johnson does not want to get into further trouble with the authorities.  So Shakespeare, one of Johnson's actors steps up and takes a bow ... The story proceeds from there ...

Again, the film itself has many holes.  I myself can't get past Elizabeth I's supposed three illegitimate children.  I just don't know a pregnancy, let alone repeated pregnancies, could be hidden on a supposedly Virgin queen.  However, the possibility that Shakespeare did not actually write the works attributed to him, I find interesting because I would understand why someone living at that time (and under those political/religious circumstances) would want perhaps to keep a certain distance from his writings.

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