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With: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson, Paolo De Vita, Trystan Gravelle, Robert Emms, Tony Way, Julian Bleach
Written by: John Orloff
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content
Running Time: 130
Date: 09/11/2011
IMDB

Anonymous (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Bard Target

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first thing anyone will ask or notice about Anonymous is that it's a movie about Shakespeare, directed by that untalented veteran of loud disaster movies (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, etc.), Roland Emmerich.

But then comes the moment when Shakespeare's plays begin to be staged for the public. Not the upper class in the royal courts, mind you, but the common people. And they love it. They eat it up. They laugh, they cheer, and they weep.

Then it becomes clear: Emmerich is a director of and for the common people, too. And it's all too true that Shakespeare has been appropriated by scholars and culture and has lost much of his original appeal. So, in essence, Emmerich and Shakespeare are a good match.

Except that this movie isn't really about Shakespeare, or at least not as everyone knows him. This movie, coming from John Orloff's exhaustively researched and densely structured screenplay, is really about the Earl of Oxford (played with subtle anguish by Rhys Ifans), who actually wrote all 38 plays and 154 sonnets (and miscellaneous other scribblings). Of course, this is not proven one way or the other, and a great many Shakespeare scholars would rather not concede that the events in this movie make a good deal of sense.

However, to go one further, the movie is more closely affiliated with another writer, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto); the movie is told through his eyes. After viewing Hamlet for the first time, Ben goes back to his table at the local tavern and tries to work, but finds himself stymied. Another writer enters and regards him, saying: "it's hard to write, isn't it, after Hamlet?" I know the feeling.

Ben is initially offered the job of fronting for Oxford. But Ben is already a produced playwright and he balks at the idea. However, William Shakespeare (a marvelous Rafe Spall), who is an undereducated, selfish, hammy actor, does not balk; he takes credit for the first produced play and a legend is born.

Then the movie delves into Oxford's past, and explores his passionate relationship with Queen Elizabeth, played in younger, sexier form by Joely Richardson and in present-day finery by Vanessa Redgrave. It looks into Oxford's talent with words, and the reasons he might have kept it secret.

There are many more twists and secrets, like a long-running soap opera, even the most minor characters are holding on to some shocking little chestnut. There is also fighting and intrigue and backstabbing and passion.

Orloff's screenplay is a potentially unwieldy thing, and to view the movie only once may require some note-taking, but Emmerich proves he his up to the task of translating it to the screen. Perhaps this was the big break he has been waiting for all along while dutifully grinding out his hit disaster pictures. He brings a great deal of enthusiasm to Anonymous, and it shows in his actors. At its conclusion not everything is entirely clear, but enough pieces fall into place to leave a feeling of satisfaction.

Best of all, this could be a primer for non-Shakespeare fans, getting them excited about the possibilities of the Bard's plays -- no matter who wrote them -- and just how good they are in spite of all people who say they're good.

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