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'Anonymous': Stylish Claptrap, By Any Other Name
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'Anonymous': Stylish Claptrap, By Any Other Name

Arts & Life

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")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Fraud, charlatan.

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")

JOELY RICHARDSON: (as Young Queen Elizabeth I) Your father tells me you wrote this evening's play yourself.

LUKE THOMAS TAYLOR: (as Boy Earl of Oxford) I did indeed, your majesty.

RICHARDSON: (as Young Queen Elizabeth I) You sport with me.

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")

RHYS IFANS: (as Earl of Oxford) Well, I can't very well use my name, can I? I'm the 17th Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, Viscount Bulbeck, Lord of Scales, Sanford and Badlesmere, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. No. I have a reputation to protect.

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")

RAFE SPALL: (as William Shakespeare) I will not let that oaf Spencer have another go with one of my roles, no. Only Will Shakespeare can (unintelligible) the life into Romeo's brains and his codpiece.

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")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Earl of Oxford) How do you think it ends?

IFANS: (as character) No doubt, tragically.

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")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Make ready.

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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