Who really wrote Macbeth? From what mind did such triumphs as the St. Crispin's Day Speech, or Hamlet's existential "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy spring? Who, in fact, is responsible for creating the pinnacles of literary achievement in the English language?
These questions, which are real and debated in scholarly circles, are what drew me to see the heavily-promoted Anonymous by Roland Emmerich. False lead. The identity of Shakespeare is not examined in the flick, despite its misleading subtitle "Was Shakespeare a fraud?" But, even though the flick doesn't investigate the historical mystery, all in all, I'm glad I saw it.
The film is a visual delight. Emmerich and company went to great lengths to create convincing Elizabethan era sets, and viewers are rewarded by their efforts. Sets and costumes are made all the more convincing by the stately dances and court manners delivered by the cast.
Rhys Ifans plays the Earl of Oxford, a blue-blooded aristocrat, enmeshed in a web of schemes between the various political players of late 16th century London. Edward of Oxford is something of a failure at politics and finances, but has a literary gift, and a plan for the approaching day when Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, passes without legal heir. Edward employs the talents, or rather the lack thereof, of a local playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Arnesto) in an elaborate and highly-unlikely scheme to thwart William Cecil (David Thewls), the Queen's most trusted advisor who has plans of his own.
I found the film's opening to be brilliant and made all the more so by the cameo appearance of Derek Jacobi as the Chorus. I'll refrain from describing it here (no spoilers from me, by golly). But I was well-and-truly drawn in by the time Jacobi had finished his opening and we were transported back to late 16th century London. (Is there any other Shakespearean actor with such wide renown as Jacobi? Well, maybe Kenneth Brannaugh...)
The film's great flaw, alas, is the story. Did I say "highly-unlikely?" That don't cover the half of it, I'm afraid. The concocted and completely ahistorical passion play that unfolds over the two-hour-ten-minute run time stretches credibility a bit too much, frankly. A promiscuous queen dropping bastard children? A tacked-on Oedipal twist? Come, now.
On the other hand, Shakespeare (whoever he was) took quite a few historical liberties in his own work, so what the hell?
With the works of Shakespeare as his backdrop, one can easily forgive writer John Orloff for penning a clanker now and then. But it seemed to me that he missed some real opportunities with his dialog. There aren't many memorable lines in this flick. (And how is that for irony?) Further, the implausibility of the story demands that the actors chew the scenery like there is no tomorrow to make it fly. (This seems to be an unfortunate recurrence with Emmerich. Remember Independence Day?)
I came away with a favorable impression of Ifans and particularly enjoyed Sebastian Arnesto's performance as well. (In no small part because I identified with his character.) Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth was all we have come to expect from her, as well.
The subject matter is fascinating and, in the end, that's what keeps the flick from dying a tragic death. This film is not the unmitigated success that was Miloš Forman's similarly-themed film, Amadeus. But if you love Shakespeare (and who doesn't?) I recommend this flick. Go, enjoy. Feast your eyes and let the film awaken that hunger for Shakespeare that so many of us know so well.
As to the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post --who wrote those works attributed to William Shakespeare? --I'm a subscriber to the Oxfordian theory. There are many Shakespeare aficionados to whom such an admission is blasphemy.
Nonetheless, after hearing both sides of the argument, I'm convinced that it was Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who wrote these, and all the other sublime words we attribute to William Shakespeare:
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING. What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
--Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3