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Anonymous (4/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time 130 minutes.

OK for children.

One of the big reasons to have well-known stars like Matt Damon or George Clooney in movies is that it allows the viewer to easily identify the characters of the film. You see one of them and you remember him and his character. This movie is populated by actors who, with all due respect, are less than household names. As a result it takes a long time to appreciate who is who, which inundates the poor viewer with confusion.

To cut through all the chaff, this is the story of the relationship of Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), and Queen Elizabeth I (the real life mother-daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave and Jolely Richardson) with respect to who was the author of the plays we know as being credited to Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, it's disappointing, overly long, convoluted, confusing, and fatuous, being directed by the master of that genre, Roland Emmerich. Emmerich, you may recall, was responsible for The Day After Tomorrow (2004), one of the more witless films of all time.

Even though he gets fine performances out of the cast, especially Ifans and Spall, Emmerich's film is so long and confusing and tries to deal with so many things that it is ultimately dulls the point he's trying to make.

Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff bring everything but the kitchen sink into the plot, including alleging that the Queen gave birth to Essex and then had an incestuous relationship with him before beheading him. In fact Emmerich and Orloff seem to be making the specious argument here that the Queen was such a profligate slut that there were many men in England who might have been able to call the Queen his mother or lover or both.

But the main point they try to make is that De Vere was the author of all the writings credited to Shakespeare. Why he tried to hide his authorship is never explained. Given everything else they throw into this, it's odd that they didn't come up with a logical reason why he hid his authorship, since everyone important to him knew it, at least according to the film.

My take on Shakespeare is that he did, indeed, write all his plays. Why wasn't he more lauded in his own time? Because he was just a hack in his own time, not unlike today's sitcom writers, just putting out his plays every year because that was his job. They were not lauded then because the Globe theater wasn't the playground of the rich and famous. It was just an entertainment for the masses. Shakespeare did his work and went home and nobody thought anything about it. It just happened that what he wrote was brilliant, but nobody realized it until the mid-19th Century when his work was revived and finally appreciated.

Genius sprouts in strange places. Who can explain why Gershwin and Mark Twain, just to take two examples, were so prolific when their parents and upbringing don't seem to justify what they created? But that's the main basis for denying Shakespeare his place in the clouds.

One thing Emmerich did well was recreating the appalling living conditions of the Elizabethan era, especially in the recreation of the Globe Theater. I generally like speculations like this, even when I don't agree with them, but this is just too long and confusing. I think it could be re-edited and cut into a pretty good movie, but that's not to be.