30/10/2011

Shakespeared!

The critical and academic response to Anonymous makes you want to praise it more. Rather like the current Three Musketeers movie, Ronald Emmerich’s latest has drawn considerable fire either for its (lack of) accuracy or as a piece of filmmaking. Yet beneath the harsh words, you can sense a holier than thou attitude. At least with Alexander Dumas it’s only his story that’s been altered. For poor old Will Shakespeare, his very credentials are under scrutiny. And of course the idea he didn’t pen his famous works its nonsense in a way. As Bill Bryson neatly surmised a few years back (and which Shakesperios will no doubt expand on in conservable detail) - there is probably a wider difference between the fame of his work and proven facts about his life than for any other famous historical person, however there is enough evidence to prove his authorship. Yet the idea that he didn’t write the plays is actually more interesting than the fact that he did. It’s called fiction and Ronald Emmerich, who usually spends his days blowing up famous monuments, has made a rather fun film with it.

The script credited to John Orloff suggests that Shakey was simply a rather drunken actor with a large ego who by sheer chance manages to claim authorship of the plays which he‘s led to believe are penned by Ben Johnson. The latter though is merely an errand boy for Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford –and one time lover of Queen Elizabeth. Not content with this delicious chicanery, Orloff chucks in the proverbial kitchen sink by having Shakespeare kill Christopher Marlowe after the latter threatens to expose the secret and revealing– deep breath- that Oxford is really the product of one of her Majesty’s earlier liaisons yet the two have a child who becomes the Earl of Southampton!! Just about the only thing he doesn’t do is reveal Robert Cecil, the Queen’s rather slimy confidante, is actually a robot built by aliens helping King James. Honestly if it had happened, you’d not be surprised.
So why isn’t this astonishing mixture of speculation and, frankly, made up `unfacts` just a mess? Because, and here’s where Emmerich comes into play, it’s a rattling good yarn. It has you gripped from the opening moments and never lets you go. It’s a riot- if you accept that is fiction, then you’ll love it more.  It’s got the ludicrously addictive twists of fate and coincidences that make people watch soap operas, books by Dan Brown and serials like Downton Abbey. It’s got Emmerich’s sense of occasion where, with only one building to destroy, he instead homes in on the absurdities of period drama. He surely prompted Orloff to include scenes with masses of people in them and for the Queen’s eventual funeral to take place on a frozen Thames (even though, of course, it didn’t). Most of all, it has an incredible traction, rolling along knocking over reputations like nine pins. It’s a good job it doesn’t surrender to facts because that would spoil the audaciousness.  
It may be that the only accuracy anyone notices is the fetid condition of the streets where people have to balance on wobbly wooden planks to walk about but there’s one fundamental thing that the Shakesperos have certainly missed. Whoever he says wrote the well known words we know it was Shakespeare and in several key scenes he shows their power to cajole, absorb and inspire the noisy theatre goers. We look into the faces of the throng and see it in their eyes. No matter what else is going on, Emmerich is saying how good the plays are anyway. Surely wily old Shakespeare himself would have loved this film because it celebrates his work albeit in a bizarre way.
"One feels it was a totally accurate film, bro "

Rhys Ifans is superb. All the passion that de Vere has for the plays he’s written yet he can never express as he watches from the gallery is there in his face. For an actor best known for leery, chaotic performances, his subtlety here is surprising. Pitched against such heavyweights as Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis and Joely Richardson, he is on another level entirely. Of course, there’s plenty of room for scenery chewing- Edward Hogg in particular is like a raven come to life as Cecil while Rafe Spall does his man-child shtick in almost the same way as on The Shadow Line. Yet it suits the extravagance and ambition of the script.
So if you want accuracy or even a reasoned argument that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays then this film is not for you. Yet if you want a daring alternative history, lots of long hair and shouting and a plot that delights in showing an alternative view of history then go. Who knows, perhaps one day it may all be proved right....


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