ANONYMOUS. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, Xavier Samuel and Derek Jacobi. Directed by Roland Emmerich. 130 minutes. Rated M (Violence and sex scenes).
‘Brush up your Shakespeare’, Cole Porter wrote for Kiss Me Kate. ‘Brush up your Earl of Oxford’ doesn’t go nearly as well (let alone ‘brush up your bacon!’).
If you like that question, then try this interesting and often amusing speculation (yet again) about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The candidate this time is Edward, Earl of Oxford. If you don’t like the question, then check some of the bloggers on the Internet Movie Database who will prove to you, very seriously indeed, how impudent this question is. They probably didn’t enjoy Shakespeare in Love.
This film owes more than a little to Shakespeare in Love but a great deal also to all those films about Elizabeth I of England with their differing focuses on the Dudleys, the Cecils and the Duke of Essex. Whom did she love – and was she in fact a virgin queen. (This speculation is definitely answering no, with some scandalous implications as well.) But, John Orloff’s complex and often ingenious screenplay links the plays to the politics, especially the writing of Richard III and a performance at the Globe Theatre to rouse the groundlings against Robert Cecil (and his hunched back).
The film looks very good, re-creating London in the late Elizabethan era (plus some flashbacks to when Gloriana was younger). The dialogue is often witty, especially at poor William Shakespeare’s expense, since he was an average actor who stepped up at the cry, ‘author, author’, to take the credit (and the money) from the anonymous Earl of Oxford (who had offered the job and salary of a ‘front’ to Ben Jonson who could not take the responsibility.
Rhys Iffans gives one of his best performances (very serious, so unlike his ruffian in Notting Hill) as the Earl who loved writing more than anything – the film has him writing and performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was about twelve. Some scenes are re-enacted from different plays with Mark Rylance (who has been until recently the artistic director of the restored Globe Theatre in London) showing us how well a lot of the verse and performance work so well if played to the audience (his prologue to Henry V is a case in point, and there is a rousing cheer at the end of the St Crispin’s Day speech). To be or not to be also works well.
So, the mystery of the authorship is presented intriguingly (with Rafe Spall very good as the rather bumpkin Shakespeare). The building of the Globe, the murder of Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare again!), Hounslow and Burbage and the others associated with the Globe as well as Jonson make for provocatively entertaining sequences – with Derek Jacobi in the present providing an on stage prologue and epilogue asking us to believe this tall story.
The politics is also interesting with the sinister roles of William and Robert Cecil (David Thewliss and Edward Hogg), the reasons given for the stand of the Earl of Essex in 1601, the place of the Earl of Southhampton (and an intriguing reason for Shakespeare’s very personal dedication to him). And Elizabeth. Vanessa Redgrave must be very satisfied in having the opportunity to do a portrait of Elizabeth in old age (bewigged and rather embalmed with make-up as was Bette Davis in her two films portraying the queen). She is, as might be expected, very good. Her daughter, Joely Richardson, is cast as the younger Elizabeth.
Dates are skewiff if you want to review the film as history rather than as intended, a pleasing cinema hoax. Which means that it is (mostly?) nonsense – so why not enjoy it all (tongue in cheek)! It does help in brushing up our Shakespeare.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 3, 2011