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Cinema in Focus: In ‘Anonymous,’ All the World’s a Conspiracy Theory

Lack of evidence on Shakespeare's life raises the question, could the Earl of Oxford been the real 'Bard'?

3 Stars — Thought-Provoking

Similar to Miloš Forman’s alternative history of Wolfgang Mozart in Amadeus, Roland Emmerich presents a possible history of the author of William Shakespeare’s works. Basing his view on a popular theory that the actual author of the plays and poems was the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower and Luke Thomas Taylor), John Orloff wrote the screenplay supporting this “Oxford” theory.

Although most academic scholars hold the traditional view that it was the writer and actor from Stratford-upon-Avon and co-owner of the Globe Theater who created these masterpieces of English literature, there are people who believe it to be Oxford. Although the film Anonymous presents their theory, it also presents a rather historically accurate presentation of Oxford’s life.

The problem with a conspiracy film as complex as Emmerich’s Anonymous is that it is easy to get lost. This is due not only to the necessity of different actors portraying the same character over the decades of their life, but also to the mixing of the time line such that the story moves back and forth in subtle time shifts.

The ensemble cast who weaves this complex conspiracy includes Queen Elizabeth the First (Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson), who is portrayed as being not only promiscuous but also having given birth to several illegitimate children, none of whom succeeded her on the throne. Her conniving advisors are William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg and Isaiah Michalski). The Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel and Timo Huber) plays a significant role in the conspiracy theory.

Also playing an essential role in the plot is playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and, of course, the opportunistic actor Shakespeare (Rafe Spall).

Written more as a soap opera in which the secrets and immorality of the characters weave an increasingly unbelievable plot, the story is nevertheless engaging and raises the question of how much we truly know about the lives of historical figures. The prejudices and class structure of English society, along with the conniving manipulations of the ruling class, is the central message of this tale.

One of the less explored aspects of the film is the Puritan and Catholic faith of the various characters. Shown in prayer and in opposition to the arts, these two incongruous actions are never explained. Perhaps the author did not understand why this was so significant in the lives of the people or made a conscious choice to leave it unexplored. Either way, the film would have benefited greatly from a better presentation of how these religious differences played into this period of history.

Anonymous is a well-told tale that raises interesting questions, but it fails to adequately explore the answers.

Discussion:

» Have you looked at the evidence of someone other than Shakespeare as the author of the works bearing his name? If so, who do you think is the likely author?

» The immorality of Queen Elizabeth presented in this film is contrary to the historical description of her as the “Virgin Queen” and strong in her Christian faith. Why do you think this film creates such a dishonoring representation?

» When King James I (James Clyde) became King of England as well as Scotland, this ended the Tudor dynasty. Do you believe the monarchy of England today is beneficial to that nation or not? Why do you answer as you do?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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