Thursday, February 23, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Anonymous (2011) ***½

PG-13, 130 min.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: John Orloff
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Samuel Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson, Paolo de Vita, Trystan Gravelle 

The plays of William Shakespeare are the most reproduced plays in cinema. They don’t do great box office, but they are a fascination for the people who make movies. Even fictions based on the life of Shakespeare tend to bring passionate filmmaking about.

It was a shock to many when epic disaster filmmaker Roland Emmerich decided that a movie about the plays of Shakespeare would be his first film since declaring he was done with disaster flicks like “Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”. He had previously directed “The Patriot” with Mel Gibson playing a Revolutionary War hero, so the period picture was not unknown to the director. Nor was re-writing history, as it has been reported that many of the “facts” of that film were severely stretched.

What was more of a shock to me was that noted Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi would portray the narrator of this re-imaganing of British history and Shakespeare’s place in it. But, what a rendering it is. Like “Shakespeare in Love”, it has all the intrigue and theatrics of Shakespeare’s writing. That film was structured like one of his romances, this one like one of his historical tragedies.

This film imagines that Shakespeare wasn’t the author of his plays at all, but rather they were the product of a noble who was trying to shape the future of England in the final days of Queen Elizabeth’s rule. Rhys Ifans plays Edward, the Earl of Oxford, the true author of the plays, in a performance that I might’ve predicted would earn him an Oscar nomination had they not already been awarded. He hires playwright Ben Johnson (Samuel Armesto) to take credit for them, but the man who will become England’s most popular playwright after Elizabeth’s rule does not want to take credit for another’s work. The actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) has no such qualms.

Edward wishes to use the will of the people to undermine Elizabeth’s closest advisors, the Cecils, in their bid to name James II of Scotland her successor. He fills his plays with allusions to the current politics of the country, most notably the oft-questioned choice to make Richard III a hunchback in Shakespeare’s play. Robert Cecil was a hunchback and much reviled by the public.

The movie does such a good job building its mysteries and back door politics that I’m almost inclined to believe that it does solve many of the mysteries left remaining about Shakespeare. It also makes a clear statement about modern practices of political candidates muckraking and rewriting opposition’s histories. This is one of the underrated movies of 2011.

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