The Soul Behind Shakespeare

Movie Review: By Ben Boquist

I’m a theater fanatic. I’ll drive for hours to see Macbeth or Hamlet. I even keep the Arden Shakespeare paper backs in my bathroom cupboard.. just in case.

But I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Much of the language is tricky, the pacing is slow by modern standards and the acting style feels theatrical for those used to the realism of film.
Usually that means I see plays alone.
good movies to watch
But now, thanks to Roland Emmerich’s stylish new film Anonymous, Shakespeare’s plays are accessible to even my most jaded friends.

The film makes the argument that the real playwright behind Shakespeare’s plays was Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Edward, played with moody intelligence by Rhys Ifans, is in a difficult position. As an Earl, he is expected to pursue politics, not the arts. To make matters worse, he is forced into an arranged marriage with the joyless daughter of Puritan politico William Cecil (the usually noble David Thewlis makes the most of this sinister role.)

Edwards controlling in-laws disapprove of art, poetry and especially theater. The Puritan Cecil’s don’t just dislike plays, they think they’re evil and make every effort to disuade and discourage Edward. When Edward tells his wife his “inner voices” compel him to write she accuses him of being demon possessed.

Because of this, Edward enlists the help of a young playwright named Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto). Edward pays him a fee to stage the plays under his name.

But Ben wants to write his own plays, and so he passes the task on to his drunk, moronic friend William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Spall’s Shakespeare is part cockney, part frat boy and it works! Once in the spotlight, Shakespeare accepts the misplaced praise with an arrogant swagger while the quiet geniuses (Ben and Edward) brood in the background.

At the same time the calculating William Cecil, with help from his eerie hunchbacked son Robert (Edward Hogg), plots to put his family on the throne. There’s also a scandalous romantic subplot between Edward and Queen elizabeth (Venessa Redgrave) who is old enough to be his mother.

In short, there’s a lot going on. So much so, that those not familiar with the Elizabethan history might get lost.

But even if you do (get lost) it’s impossible not to become engrossed in Emerich’s gritty visually rich vision of sixteenth century London. The costumes, makeup and set pieces aren’t the stuff of museum portraits. In Anonymous we see a dirty world full of greasy faces, yellowed teeth and ink stained fingers.

Nowhere is this more powerful than in the personage of Queen Elizabeth herself. Venessa Redgrave looks uncomfortable, even grotesque in heavy powder and restrictive bodices. Behind closed doors, we see her slouching, clawing at her corset and humming to herself. The effect is a much more vulnerable and human monarch than we’ve ever seen before.

But the film’s best scenes belong to Sebastian Armesto, whose Ben Johnson watches “Shakespeare’s” rise in popularity with a mixture of awe and jealousy.

But even while affording it’s characters great dramatic moments, Anonymous never veers into art house pretentiousness. The film is visually rich, exciting, and fast paced, much like the films Emmerich is famous for (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow.)

Watch it with your little brother, your date and your high school English teacher. They’ll all enjoy it, just not the same parts.


4 comments on “The Soul Behind Shakespeare

  1. H.L. Banks says:

    Enjoyed your post. Interesting concept – must have been a challenging production. I love everything theatre as well – in my WIP (mystery writer) the murder takes place on stage of Tennesee’s play, Cat on the Hot Tin Roof.

  2. Very well written, my friend! I must admit, I saw previews for this film and wrote it off as a bore, but now I am reconsidering.

  3. […] surreal. In Shakespeare’s day, it was accepted for characters to break out into soliloquies and talk about their feelings. […]

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