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Anonymous: no, Anonymous is not quite Shakespeare. But then, who is?

Arecent news story reported that in William Shakespeare's home county of Warwickshire, street and pub signs bearing the Bard of Avon's name, as well as statues in his honour, were being covered up in protest. Protest against what? Anonymous, a new film that offers the theory that Shakespeare was an illiterate drunkard who stumbled upon his legacy by chance.

But does Anonymous really warrant the malodorous name it has been given by Stratfordians?

Certainly, one gets the impression that Roland Emmerich wants to stoke contention. "Was Shakespeare a fraud?" teases the none-too-delicate tagline, and yet this is never actually in question. From the outset we're told, "Yes, he was a bloody fraud." The real Bard, claims Anonymous, was Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), Elizabethan aristocrat and Earl of Oxford.

This assertion alone has been the catalyst for sundry hissy fits in and outside of the literary community. And yet were any of Shakespeare's own works entirely historically accurate? Certainly not.

What matters is not whether Anonymous is faithful to history (and there is no way it is entirely), but how convincing--more so, entertaining--it is in putting its argument across. To see, or not see, that is the question.

Well, Anonymous has a good leading man for starters. As de Vere, Ifans has a truly imposing presence, one that evinces power and genius but also an insurmountable sadness.

His has been a stifled childhood, adopted into the house-hold of Queen Elizabeth I's chief adviser William Cecil (David Thewlis), blackmailed into a loveless marriage and forbidden to do the one thing he loves--to write--even though he surreptitiously does so, penning A Midsummer Night's Dream at not yet 10 years old.

It isn't until decades later that de Vere devises to stage his plays anonymously; his choice of proxy is young playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto). But before Jon-son can stand up and claim credit after the debut of Henry V goes down famously, an insolent actor, name of Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) butts in to take the applause.

Anonymous is about de Vere rather than Shakespeare, and that Spall doesn't get much of a look-in is a pity. The slobby scoundrel may merely be a front for de Vere's genius, yet he is almost as intriguing as his reluctant benefactor: dimwitted, often blotto, but willing to make the most of his position through the most sinister acts of pragmatism.

At one point, he is "revealed" to be the murderer of fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle), who has threatened to uncover the whole ruse.

And when Jonson stands on the verge of revealing Shakespeare's duplicity to the world--forcing him to write a word, a letter, even, to prove that he can indeed write (he can't, of course; he's illiterate)--we're left on tenterhooks.

But Anonymous prefers to spend most of its time not on the stinking streets of 16th-century London or in Shakespeare's world of theatre, instead in the stately and royal households of the Cecils and Queen Elizabeth (played in different stages of her life by the equally superb Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave).

De Vere is portrayed not just as a playwright but a political rebel and lover of the queen. As the plot gathers speed, the aristocratic arena becomes somewhat preposterous as an inextricable web of farce is spun: infidelity, incest, illegitimate children. Surely not even the British royal family was capable of all this?

One shocking revelation after another smacks of soap opera, and what begins as a well-humoured romp through the history books will become too heavy on the melodrama for many filmgoers. And that's after casting all dubious "facts" aside.

The film makes rudimentary errors, too. At one point, it is commented on that the streets of London are empty because everyone is watching Shakespeare's new play. This, despite the Globe theatre having a capacity of about 1500--not exactly the population of the city, even back then.

Is Anonymous' argument convincing? Not really (despite Derek Jacobi's best efforts to bookend the film with more "facts.") But add a pinch of salt or two, and ignore as best you can some of the later revelations, and here is a fun if flawed period drama played out by some great actors, many of whom have trodden the boards as one of the Bard's creations before. No, Anonymous is not quite Shakespeare. But then, who is?


Anonymous will premiere in Bulgaria on December 9.

Will Noble, The Prague Post
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Title Annotation:Film review
Author:Noble, Will
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Date:Nov 18, 2011
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