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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Shakespeare at the movies

This week's movie rental was the 2011 film Anonymous. The movie is a ...

political thriller and pseudo-historical drama which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ... a fictionalized version of the life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, an Elizabethan courtier, playwright, poet .... Set within the political atmosphere of the Elizabethan court, the film presents Lord Oxford as the true author of Shakespeare's plays, and dramatizes events leading to the succession of Queen Elizabeth and the Essex Rebellion against her.

- the older Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

I thought the movie was good -- the costumes were great, the sets really neat, the acting fine, the scenes of the various plays put on were interesting, and the theory explaining many of the unexplained things about Shakespeare was intriguing -- but the story was also quite disturbing and sad.

The film began in present day New York, with Derek Jacobi ascending to a theater stage and speaking to the audience about the oddities surrounding Shakespeare that have raised questions about the authorship of hi works .... that not one document attributed to him has ever been found written in his own hand, that he was able to write as he did with only an elementary school education, that he left his calling to become a grain merchant. As he went on speaking, the costumed actors and set on the stage behind him morphed into a realistic-looking Elizabethan street, and the historical drama about Shakespeare began.

- the young Queen Elizabeth and Edward

The script is based on the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship, the idea that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was who actually wrote all of Shakespeare's plays/poems. The storyline, which takes place over a forty year period, is pretty complicated .... the young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower) meets the young Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) during a private showing of one of his plays. They eventually begin a romance which ends when Elizabeth becomes pregnant and their child is placed with a noble family without their knowledge by the power behind the throne, William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (David Thewlis). The young Earl of Oxford has meanwhile married William Cecil's daughter and the Cecil family, being Puritan, pressure him not to write any more plays, so he instead hires playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) to produce his plays as his own. Eventually an unethical actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), learns of this deal and blackmails the Earl of Oxford to let him, not Johnson, pretend the plays are his own. Time goes by, the Queen (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes elderly, the mature Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) learns the identity of his son, the now Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), and befriends him, the Cecils, father William and son Robert (Edward Hogg), work to give the future crown of England to Mary Queen of Scots' son James, and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (Sebastian Reid), thought to be one of Elizabeth's bastards, works with his supporters to keep James off the throne, eventually getting decapitated for his trouble .... hey, I warned you it was complicated :)

- the Earl of Southampton and the Earl of Essex

Anyway, there's a lot more to the story, but I don't want to give it all away. There was something of a controversy when the film came out, more over the worthiness of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship than the worth of the film itself, I think -- if interested, check out the Wikipedia page for links. Here's an example, the first paragraph of NYT movie critic A.O. SCcott's review of the film ...

“Anonymous,” a costume spectacle directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination. Apart from that, it’s not bad ....

I'm not sure if this will appeal to people who aren't interested in Shakespeare or who aren't history enthusiasts like me, but it's a well-made glimpse at Elizabethan England, albeit one seemed determined to justify every misanthropic sensibility ... I'm glad I saw it but I don't think I'll ever want to revisit it.

Here's the trailer ...


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