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Anonymous: movie review

Was Shakespeare a fraud? That's the premise of 'Anonymous,' which bends history in classic Hollywood fashion.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / October 28, 2011

Rafe Spall (as William Shakespeare) surfs a crowd in ‘Anonymous,' in which the plot posits that the Bard's words were ghostwritten.

Columbia Pictures

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"Anonymous," set inside the nefarious political court of Elizabethan England, is about Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), the rightful author of the plays falsely attributed to that nincompoop imposter William Shakespeare.

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Full disclosure: I think Shakespeare wrote the plays and this is all hooey. But more on that in a moment. How does the film stand up as a "What if?" historical drama?

Answer: Not too well. John Orloff's screenplay could have used a rewrite by de Vere – or whomever.

The conceit here is that de Vere was too highly placed to reveal his identity and so he dragooned poor Shakespeare (via Ben Jonson, his first choice) into acting as his front. Lest you think that Orloff and the film's director, Roland Emmerich, are content to besmirch only Shakespeare's name, you should also know that Queen Elizabeth herself (played, in a neat bit of then-and-now casting, by the mother-daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson) also gets it in the neck. Elizabeth, it seems, was not exactly the Virgin Queen after all. In fact, de Vere was her.... But now I've told too much already.

The Elizabethan period re-creations are imposing, but since the action going on in them is so outlandish, the effort is all for naught. Ifans, normally a knockabout actor, is dulled out here with a snooty rectitude. As Jonson, Sebastian Armesto is impressive but smolders in a vacuum. Whenever things get bogged down in confusing courtly intrigues, Emmerich tosses in a punch-out or a fencing match. Groundlings carouse as only groundlings can.

As William Cecil, Elizabeth's chief adviser, David Thewlis seems to have a difficult time making himself heard through his beard. Cecil's son Robert (Edward Hogg) is even scurvier than his dad, plus he has a hunchback – the inspiration, apparently, for Shakespeare's, I mean de Vere's – Richard III. (One of the film's many annoyances is that it regards the plays as mere extenuations of de Vere's political ambitions.)

If "Anonymous" were simply a lousy movie I'd leave it at this. But movies have a way of serving as history texts for gullible audiences. Remember how many people took Oliver Stone's "JFK" seriously at the time? According to James Shapiro, the author of the definitive pro-Bard book "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?," Sony Pictures is reportedly distributing Shakespeare-debunking lesson plans for literature and history teachers. "A documentary by First Folio Pictures (of which Mr. Emmerich is president) will also be part of this campaign," writes Mr. Shapiro in The New York Times.

This is monstrous. For the record, de Vere died in 1604, before, you know, "Othello" and "King Lear" and "The Tempest" were written. (The film has him writing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at age 9!) But it's easy to see why de Vere has his champions among those who want to believe that only a man of high position and breeding could have written the plays. This is rank classism posing as scholarship.

Frankly, if I'm going to be offered a heaping pile of revisionism about the greatest writer who ever lived, I'd rather it be from someone with more academic heft than the director of "Independence Day" and "Godzilla." I trust the teachers who receive this film's study guide have a shredder handy. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content.)

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