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IN SHORT: Once it finds its feet, the film is a good sit for us grown ups. [Rated PG-13 by the MPAA for Some Violence and Sexual Content. 130 minutes]
Anonymous is a fictional story involving Shakespeare and whether or not that man actually wrote the works attributed to him. This is not history. Keep the two straight and you'll have a much better time.
excepting a brief bit of clumsiness early in the film, Anonymous is more a story of political intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I than a story of who wrote which of Shakespeare's plays or poems or sonnets. If you buy a ticket expecting the film to be a magnifying glass on the question of authorship, that isn't what you're going to get.
Whether you have any active interest in Shakespeare or not; whether you've seen any of the originals on stage or on screen or adapted into modern works like West Side Story or not; you know of the work of William Shakespeare. What Homer's Iliad and Odyssey was to the Greek world, the poems and sonnets and plays and everything else by William Shakespeare has shaped all the literature of the Western World.
Of course, the rumor has been floating around for years that no one man could have possibly written the framework of Western culture. Perhaps he had help. Perhaps someone else did most of said work -- Sir Francis Bacon is the name we usually heard mentioned when we were in school -- but Anonymous' William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is an actor, and that's all he wants to be. He can read but not write and is no world traveler. Except for an extraordinary bit of luck that makes him top dog among fellow creative types like Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle), Shakespeare isn't much more to this story than a minor celebrity and a shakedown artist.
Anonymous gets to its point early. All Shakespearian writings, at least in this film's universe, come from the quill of a royal, Edward De Vere – the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). The plays are attributed to an actor named William Shakespeare for the simple reason that Royalty did not write plays. Or poems. Or stories of any kind. Doing so debased the royal status, or some such nonsense. Simply, it wasn't done. A discovery that "Oxford" was involved in such despicable practices as writing plays for the general rabble would have delighted his political nemesis, William Cecil (David Thewlis), who holds the title of Earl of Sussex. Cecil, as Elizabeth's chief advisor, spends his lifetime trying to wrest control of the British Empire away from the Tudor family and into the hands of King James of Scotland. Cecil's son Robert (Edward Hogg) will eventually succeed his father, and have better luck, as the aging Queen Elizabeth's (Vanessa Redgrave) mental facilities begin to fail.
While Cecil had the Queen's ear, the Earl of Oxford had an intimacy that belies her majesty's nickname as "the Virgin Queen." Thanks to numerous flashbacks which get very close to confusing the overall story, we learn of a love affair between young Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower) and the youthful Queen (Joely Richardson). So... back in the story's "present day" Oxford (aka De Vere) is just as determined to ensure that the throne not be passed to the Scots King, and has kept a protective eye on one if Elizabeth's illegitimate offspring, the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel).
Both men, Oxford and Sussex, must find a way to convince Elizabeth to name an heir and both must be exceptionally subtle. In the royal world, the Queen's word is law and no one may offer up opinions in the royal presence. If he wants to maintain possession of his head. (I think).
Don't let any of the above scare you off. Anonymous is, when you get to the point, a story of two men fighting over the same woman. They just can't punch each other out. They can use the words of a "popular playwright" to inflame the common audience to rise up and take down portions of the Queen's royal court . . .
. . . and you thought I was going to give away the whole story, didn't you. Given our relative ignorance of Brit history, Anonymous does a fine job of setting up the players and making their relative positions and motivations clear. Push comes to shove, it's a pretty good story and an equally fine sit.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Anonymous, he would have paid . . .
Given that Anonymous is just one conspiracy story among many, the entire film is framed as a Broadway stage production, with a solo Derek Jacobi explaining it all.
Well... "the play's the thing," after all.
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