Long after most of our names have faded away, the words of Shakespeare will remain fresh on the lips of the world, whether or not the Bard penned all his celebrated works. But what would happen if one of English literature’s great champions were not a man from humble origins, but a nobleman? What then were the words of Hamlet, Prospero and Macbeth supposed to mean?

Anonymous

At Quality 16
Columbia


According to director Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous,” the claim of authorship for the revered dramas belongs to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. In the film, the plays were written during a time of uncertainty with an obvious political agenda. So instead of simply standing as works of art, they’re considered artifacts of a conspiracy. What follows is a taut, relentless story that contains all the elements of an epic tragedy.

During this tumultuous time, Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave, “Atonement”) is under the council of a powerful family called the Cecils. In order to protect their wealth, the Cecils urge the queen to pronounce King James of Scotland her successor. To prevent such an ascension and reveal the Cecils’ intentions, de Vere uses a man named Shakespeare — a very drunk Shakespeare — as a frontman to release plays, at once protecting himself and freeing himself to take political jabs.

It should be noted the film never opens with “Based on a True Story.” As such, “Anonymous” should be received as historical fiction, not fact — which may unfortunately dull its potency as an argument against Shakespeare. But then again, we should be thankful that the premise of the film — the tantalizing question of whether Shakespeare was a fraud — doesn’t at all eclipse the story. So while the film may not be credible academically, it nevertheless succeeds as a driven Tudors political drama.

“Anonymous” knows only one direction: forward. The plot’s vibrant pacing allows the audience to be enthralled by the story’s political intrigue and passion, while wisely choosing moments to paint an intimate portrait of Edward de Vere. As the Oxfordian champion, Rhys Ifans (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1”) walks the cold corridors with heavy eyes, ink-stained hands, but more importantly, the confidence of a Renaissance genius. Ifans conveys a weary knowledge we never once dare dispute, nor do we question his passion. Above the groundlings, he mouths out his plays’ lines as they are delivered on a wonderfully rendered stage, and when the actors step forward to take a bow he revels in the audience’s applause.

But Ifans only makes up a half of de Vere’s entire character. The story is also deeply concerned with his past, chiefly his romance with Elizabeth I. Jamie Bower’s (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1”) performance as the young earl in his mid-twenties completes the film’s de Vere as both a poet and a lively nobleman trapped by the duties of his social status.

Originally supposed to be de Vere’s frontman instead of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto, “The Tudors”) and de Vere perhaps share the most interesting relationship. Caught between envy and admiration, it eats at Johnson to watch the plays, to know de Vere’s voice clearly speaks volumes over his own. Yet despite Johnson’s comparatively incompetent skill, it’s later revealed that de Vere respects him and yearns for his approval. While the rest of the film is concerned with political ambitions, this aspect touches lightly on the nature of writing but fortunately manages to see enough screen time to round the film out.

In the end, Johnson declares de Vere “the soul of the age.” No matter who penned them, Shakespeare’s works have climbed to the pinnacle of English thought and literature, remaining an irrevocable part of today’s cultural capital. The film inspires debate with an entertaining story and solid performances, and helps to clarify and refine the work of Shakespeare.

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