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'Anonymous': Stylish Claptrap, By Any Other Name

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'Anonymous': Stylish Claptrap, By Any Other Name

Arts & Life

'Anonymous': Stylish Claptrap, By Any Other Name

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MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:

Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? That's the question - at least, according to Roland Emmerich's new movie "Anonymous." Our film critic Bob Mondello says after seeing the film, you may have a few questions of your own.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I went in a skeptic, but I have to say "Anonymous" raises one question of authorship pretty persuasively. I mean, what a preposterous notion that Roland Emmerich could have made this movie. The guy who revived "Godzilla," went to war with aliens in "Independence Day" and trashed the whole world in "2012," we're supposed to believe he's suddenly concerning himself with doublets, corsets, elaborate facial hair and the intrigues of Elizabethan England? Ridiculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")

MONDELLO: Besides, there are lots of likelier moviemakers for this picture: Kenneth Branagh, for one, or how about Laurence Olivier, who admittedly has the disadvantage of being dead. But why should that be a problem? "Anonymous," after all, claims Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare's plays, though he died before about a dozen of them were produced. Youth in this chronology isn't a problem either. Witness Edward de Vere wowing a youngish Queen Elizabeth by starring in his own "Midsummer Night's Dream" when he's 9 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")

MONDELLO: Elizabeth is almost 30 at this point, which doesn't keep her from fooling around with Edward when he gets into his late teens, producing an illegitimate heir who ends up, if I'm not confusing mustaches, best buddy to a guy de Vere will later push as Elizabeth's successor. He's sort of a frustrated politician, you see, when he's not furiously writing plays that he hopes to fob off on some other playwright.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")

MONDELLO: Enter a buffoonish, basically illiterate actor named Shakespeare, who's game to be paid as a playwright, but would really prefer to act in the plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")

MONDELLO: Now, as silly as most of this is, "Anonymous" is undeniably handsome as directed by, well, let's go with Emmerich, but I still favor Branagh. The costumes are gorgeous, enough velvet and brocade to make everybody seem upholstered. Computer graphics allows soaring shots over the muddy streets of a presumably digital London. And when de Vere decides to use Richard III to whip a theater audience into a political frenzy...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")

MONDELLO: ...basically turning the play into a propaganda tool, the mob looks persuasive enough that for some viewers it may not matter that very little of this actually happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANONYMOUS")

MONDELLO: Grant the film's big moments are kind of loopy majesty and not that they're nicely acted by the likes of Rhys Ifans as a soulful de Vere, Rafe Spall as a whoremongering Shakespeare, and both Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson as a surprisingly randy virgin queen. Still, plot matters, and I'm guessing that this film's plot will prove, more or less, incoherent for folks who can't already identify, say, Ben Jonson, Robert Cecil and the Second Earl of Essex and exasperating for those who can.

Also frustrating for anyone who worries that reducing a play like "Richard III" to a mere propaganda tool to whip up a mob diminishes it a bit. You know, that proof-demanding academic crowd who'll no doubt spend that scene and maybe the whole rest of the movie muttering: a source, a source, my kingdom for a source. I'm Bob Mondello.

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