The story of the truth about the greatest poet who ever lived... is dragged down by bad writing. The irony?
Well, it's about time I reviewed a film I flat out didn't like. Most of what I watch I choose because I expect it to be good - or because my class work demands it. Once in a while, though, it's fun to go into a film with no idea what to expect beyond the poster and the premise.
So... was Shakespeare were a fraud?
That's the question this film boldly dares to ask. And its a really nice idea. One that's surprisingly passed over in the world of film, considering the popularity of the speculation (although most scholars agree that Shakespeare was indeed Shakespeare). Shakespeare's work has been adapted hundreds of times over, dating way back into the silent era of film. Can you imagine watching Romeo and Juliet without sound? I can't, but they did it. But the historic figure of Shakespeare himself, has that ever been tackled? I can only think of Shakespeare In Love, which I haven't seen, but apparently is a very effective story about Shakespeare... well, falling in love.
Anonymous, though, asks the question: was he a fraud? It then answers "Yes", and proceeds to tell an unrelated story of medieval intrigue. I'll start with what I liked the least: the character of Shakespeare. I guess I should have expected this going in, but Will Shakespeare in this film did not write any of the work that is credited to him. In fact, he's kind of a jerk.
Anybody who's familiar with Shakespeare's work will probably like Shakespeare - at very least respect his brilliance. He's the golden standard by which all English writing is judged after all. This film characterises Shakespeare as an illiterate actor; bursting with charisma and energy and ego and apathy. He's not even supposed to be in on this con, he just shows up and attaches his names to things. Every time I looked at the character I thought he seemed more like Jack Sparrow, minus the ability to act, or the charming humour, than anybody who could even pretend to have written the works of Shakespeare. The other problem is that he's hardly present in the picture. The film is less about him and how he pulls off this con, and more about these bizarre connections within the royal family, and how the plays are somehow connected to control of the throne.
But that's just a story choice I disagree with, I probably wouldn't have minded the place of the Shakespeare character if it weren't for two other more damning gripes: firstly, the film is confusing.
The movie jumps back and forth in time; I guess I can deal with that. The first scene is a modern day theatre in New York, where none other than Derek Jacobi is narrating a performance of the film we're about to watch. There is then a clever transition from the stage performance 'Anonymous' into the Elizabethan era, and the film proper. Ok, so far so good, I'm intrigued.
We see a character we don't know running from the law, into the iconic Rose theatre in London. He hides some papers in a box, and is arrested as the soldiers torch the building. Cut to five years earlier, with a helpful little title card. From there we are introduced to some of the main characters, including Elizabeth the First... who has a flashback to 40 years earlier. These flashbacks are given by many characters throughout the film.
Ok, so the movie is weaving about four different time periods in parallel Other films have done this quite successfully, but somehow this film fails miserably. I think it's because so many of the characters look very similar, and the film doesn't work hard enough to connect young people to their older selves. Those handy title cards disappear after the first instance, and there is little differentiation between the Elizabethan past and 'present'. Sometimes the only way I could tell what year a given scene occurred in was by the age of the queen, but she doesn't appear in every scene.
So I was confused, but as the film dragged on I began to piece things together, reconsider what I thought was happening, and work out what I think went on.
Did I say dragged?
My second point: this movie is boring. The mystery of who wrote Shakespeare's plays is cleared up very quickly, and after that there's not much else to get invested in. There is the matter of who the crown of England goes to, and a lot of screen time is devoted to that, but the film is so confusing that by the time you figure out who's who and what they want, you'll have no time wonder, and no time left to care.
I guess the most frustrating thing about this movie is that there are so many good ideas in here. It's trying to be a grand tribute to Shakespeare's writing, imbuing it with the power to move people, shift nations. Sometimes, it seems to do that, especially when it deals with the character of...
Edward de Vere
... Sorry, I had to look up his name, because after watching the movie I had no friggin clue.
Edward de Vere is the nobleman who, on some historical theories, wrote the complete works of Shakespeare. And he was my favourite part of this movie. His characterization is great - from a talented (although disturbingly ambitious) young boy to an adult who flouts his responsibilities, and hears voices that urge him to write. We see parts of his life that directly reflect ideas in Shakespeare - like when, as a young man, he stabs a spying servant through a curtain. We see him use his wit and verse to seduce women; we see that wit crushed under the pressures of responsibility, and we see the wonder in his eyes as he watches his writings come to life, albeit with Will taking the credit.
It's a little disconcerting that nobody in the medieval world talks like Shakespeare - with his 'wherefore's and 'shalt's. I guess if they actually had the actors speak Middle English it would be too confusing for a modern audience. It does also mean that when Edward speaks he produces marvellous effect, but I couldn't help but notice that the writing in this film just isn't on par with real-life Shakespeare.There is a neat little third-act twist which takes after another classic play, which I found quite brilliant, although it didn't seem to affect any of the characters in any way, except that it ushered in the films conclusion.
There are lots of little references to Shakespeare and other theatre, as well as to historical figures and events.
The biggest flaw in this film is not the writing; I think it's the direction and editing. The film feels unfocussed, and confusing. I didn't think of Shakespeare as a fraud, I though of Will as Captain Jack, and Edward as Shakespeare. For all the dilly-dallying about the crown of England, I didn't care, I just wanted to see more of Edward, and understand what the film was on about.