Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding Shakespeare in Anonymous

There comes a point in every mom's week where she can no longer watch another cartoon or kid show without feeling the urge to pluck her eyes out. This is often solved by scheduling a movie night, or just watching a romantic comedy or costume drama DVD after the kids are in bed.

Well, if you like costume dramas, I've got the movie that will serve as a remedy to any amount of preschool programming.

I first heard about the movie Anonymous just before it was released to theaters. The film poses a question that some scholars have debated for years: who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays and poems? It's always seemed unlikely that the barely educated son of an illiterate glove maker could go on to write some of the greatest plays in history, filled with incredible details about lands Shakespeare never saw and history that he likely never learned.

While most academics still accept that Shakespeare wrote his own works, there are some who believe that it was actually a member of the nobility who wrote all of them using Shakespeare's name. During that time period, it was considered scandalous for a nobleman to write plays for the general public, so should he wish to do so he would have to do it secretly under a different name.

Anonymous is a fictional what if? story that assumes that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the true Shakespeare. The film often jumps back and forth through time, featuring Edward as a younger man, dreaming of poetry and writing while flirting with the younger Queen Elizabeth, and then Edward as the disillusioned older man, looking for a way to express his political opinions and incite change in the country and finding that means of expression through secretly play writing for the London stage.

Woven in the fiction is a wealth of historical fact, however, and the movie brings the characters and world of Elizabethan England that some of us vaguely remember from history books to life in stunning detail and complexity. The visuals presented in this film are breathtaking, with every aspect of the world displayed in painstaking detail, from the crowded, dirty city of London to the manicured estates of the nobility.

I should add at this point that the movie is not as historically accurate as you might think it to be. It's a story pursuing a theory in history, and as such that story takes many liberties with the source material. (In other words, don't let your teens watch this to pass their world history test.) But where the details may be fictional, the sensibilities, politics, and culture of that moment in time are preserved and resurrected on the screen.

Amazingly, for a movie about Shakespeare, there isn't a lot of screen time for the man himself. When Edward de Vere asks the writer Ben Jonson to get his plays onto the stage under Jonson's name, Jonson hesitates and Shakespeare is only too happy to step forward and accept the applause. In this story, Shakespeare isn't the noble genius we may consider him to be, but rather a drunken, scheming actor ready to blackmail a nobleman to get the fame and fortune he wants.

The cast is made up of both newcomers and legends. The older version of Edward de Vere, played by Rhys Ifans, is a delicate balance of a man crushed by past rejection yet, deep down, still filled with the passion that drove the actions of his youth. Vanessa Redgrave plays the older Queen Elizabeth, while Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson is the younger version of Elizabeth. Each brings to the character a depth well beyond the classroom description of the "Virgin Queen" of England.

My one complaint with the film is that if you don't already have some knowledge of the material or of some of the history, it can be difficult to follow through the dizzyingly large cast of characters. I love Shakespeare and Elizabethan history was the focus of my first college degree, so it was easy for me to keep up, but others may occasionally feel lost in the details. I can't even fully explain the story in this review because there are so many layers involved!

Still, it doesn't detract from the basics of the story and may leave some viewers wanting to seek out more information on these historical figures. Anonymous may not change your opinion on the subject of who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare, but it will entertain you with an intriguing theory on what could have been, provide a beautiful study of Elizabethan England, and possibly even invite some debate among friends about who was the "real" Shakespeare.

Anonymous is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. The Blu-ray features extended and deleted scenes, a featurette on Shakespeare, commentary with Director Roland Emmerich and Writer John Orloff, and more. The DVD has some of these features, too, but if at all possible, get the Blu-ray. The high-definition treatment is really a must to appreciate all of the gorgeous detail in this film.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this movie to facilitate my review. All opinions expressed here are my own, and your opinion of dramas with men in tights may vary. I especially have a love for movies featuring the Earl of Oxford because my husband played the character when we were once actors at the Ohio Renaissance Festival many years ago. True story.

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