Elizabeth: The Olden Age
Grade: C +
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, and Edward Hogg
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 10 min.
The ad tagline for Anonymous – “Was Shakespeare a Fraud?” – conveys both the substance and problem with this campy historical dramatization. Rehashing a decades-old conspiracy over the true author of the works attributed to actor and playwright William Shakespeare, director Roland Emmerich foists a distended viewpoint of the so-called Oxfordians, a vocal minority who argue that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and poems attributed to the Bard of Avon.
While Emmerich, the longtime doyen of bombastic end-of-the-world disaster flicks, might seem inapposite to such literary designs, the premise of “Anonymous” is no less absurd than 2012, Independence Day, or The Day After Tomorrow. Emmerich’s implicit contention is that the factual license and tawdry palace intrigue at the heart of this film is no different than the liberties Shakespeare (or whoever) took with historical events for the sake of such seminal dramas as Henry VIII, Richard III, and Julius Caesar. Emmerich establishes his perspective in Anonymous’ opening scene, when Derek Jacobi steps onto a contemporary stage to deliver a prologue as actors busy themselves behind the curtain to launch the rest of the story. [It’s ironic – and a bit sad – to see Jacobi, who owes much of his acting career to the Bard, smear Shakespeare’s name by claiming he never advanced beyond a grade school education and asking, “What if I told you that Shakespeare never wrote a single word?”]
In truth, historical slavishness should not be art’s critique. The problem, of course, is that while Shakespeare regales us with the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V and Marc Antony’s eulogy in Julius Caesar, Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff (A Mighty Heart) has Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) whining that “I’d go mad if I didn’t write down the voices.”
Because of his royal station and proper society’s taboo against writers, de Vere keeps his predilection secret. He also recruits playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to publish de Vere’s works under Jonson’s name. However, the audience’s exhortation following the debut of Henry V impulsively prompts William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a middling actor and cad, to dip his fingers in ink and take a bow. The rest is Emmerich’s version of history.
Emmerich’s branding of Shakespeare as an illiterate commoner not worthy or capable of penning words that could only have been wrought by aristocracy is elitist enough. However, the true transgression of Anonymous is not its shaky verisimilitude but the convoluted vehicle is uses to tell its kitschy tale. Shakespeare’s emergence takes place against the backdrop of a power struggle over the court of Queen Elizabeth I (played in her later years by Vanessa Redgrave). De Vere’s true motivation for revealing his plays to the public is the subtle promotion of Robert Devereux (Sam Reid) as Elizabeth’s would-be successor in lieu of a candidate preferred by the queen’s ministers, William Cecil (David Thewlis) and, after William’s death, his hunchback son Robert (Edward Hogg).
De Vere, whose relationship with Elizabeth figures prominently, is portrayed by three different actors as the film oscillates across as many time periods. There are betrayals, blackmails, intricate plots, illegitimacy, incest and even a bit of bear-baiting for good measure. Monitoring who is friend or foe is difficult enough – keeping track of their machinations proves an exercise in futility.
The costumes and computer-enhanced rendering of 16th-century London are suitably realistic – the opulence is lavish, and at times you can practically smell the grim. However, Anonymous reaches its zenith during Emmerich’s productions of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night – using actors that include Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Mark Rylance. These brief glimpses ably capture the beauty and grandeur of Shakespeare in a way that, ironically, makes any debate over his identity feel trivial by comparison. Shakespeare belongs to the ages; Anonymous belongs in a tabloid.