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Still shot from the movie: Anonymous.

Anonymous

There has long been a theory that William Shakespeare isn't really the author of the body of work accredited to him. But if this were true, who then is the real writer? Anonymous poses an answer to that question, which is intertwined with Queen Elizabeth I and the Essex Rebellion.

Overall Grade: C+
Violence: C
Sexual Content: C-
Language: B
Drugs/Alcohol: C+
Release Date: 29 Oct 2011
Run Time: 128
MPAA Rating: PG-13

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In-Depth Review

Historical truth can be fascinating on its own, but weaving in a few unsubstantiated rumors and a little salacious fiction is always an option when it comes to creating an entertaining story. However distinguishing fact from fabrication in Anonymous proves to be as mind-boggling as the first act of this movie.

Opening in present day New York, the movie jumps back in time to the era of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), poet Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and playwright William Shakespeare (portrayed in this movie by Rafe Spall as an opportunistic buffoon who resorts to blackmail). In the first scene, Ben runs through the grimy streets of London loaded down with a large parcel. The Queen’s guards are close on hand. When Ben sneaks into a local theater and hides beneath a trap door in the floor, the soldiers expedite his willingness to turn himself in by burning down the building.

Hauled back to the castle and subjected to a brutal beating, Ben has a flashback to the events that brought him to this painful point. Audiences are then introduced to a troupe of London actors and patrons including writer Thomas Dekker (Robert Emms), pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (Tony Way) and Edward the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). All are real figures. Yet the depicted details of their lives may be difficult to validate with the brief records we have from that historical period. We then go further back in time to meet the Earl of Oxford as a young married man (Jamie Campbell Bower) who has lusty interludes with the young Queen of England (Joely Richardson) during his marriage to the daughter of the Queen’s chief advisor William Cecil (David Thewlis). While historical rumors suggest the real Queen had secret children out of wedlock, including Francis Bacon and the Earl of Essex, she maintained throughout her reign as a single woman that she was "The Virgin Queen".

Like the details of the Queen’s private life (some of which is portrayed on screen), this production also advances the controversy that Shakespeare did not pen the famous and prolific lines he is known for. (Director Roland Emmerich gives his own reasons for questioning the author’s authenticity.) Rather it suggests the real playwright and poet was the Earl of Essex, a man driven to write but unable to put his name to his plays in an age when the Queen’s Puritan advisor and his hunchbacked son (Edward Hogg) are working hard to banish what they consider banal and wicked diversions.

While some of the storyline may be disputable, the costuming and art direction along with many of the performances are without question amazing. Still parents should note there are several scenes of sexual activity, brief male buttock nudity, ample cleavage and the depiction and discussion of prostitutes and incest. As well as deceit and underhanded political tactics, swordplay and guns are employed as weapons with numerous characters being killed on screen. In an attempt to squelch an uprising among the peasants, the armed guards also fire cannons upon a gathering crowd. And one unlucky character that displeases the Queen loses his head at the chopping block.

With snippets of Shakespeare’s works presented on screen, this production may encourage viewers to haul out their dusty copies of the writer’s sonnets and plays to determine their own stance on the debate. However unless audiences are willing to do some research, it is difficult to untangle the facts from the fiction in this intriguing tale of author identity.

Content Details: Beyond the Movie Ratings...

Violence: Bloody injuries are depicted during a police beating and in plays being performed on stage. A man is stabbed in the leg with a sword. Another character is impaled and killed while hiding in a man’s room. Numerous characters, including some who are intentionally trapped, are killed during conflicts involving guns and swords. Blood is shown on the ground. A group of peasants are fired on with a cannon and guns. Men are sent into battle with hopes they will be killed. Characters plot against one another. Men are arrested and thrown in jail for sedition. Dogs fight with a bear for entertainment. Blackmailing is portrayed. A man is beheaded off screen.

Sexual Content: Characters kiss passionately. Couples are briefly seen engaging in intercourse. Male buttock nudity is seen momentarily. Women’s cleavage is shown in low-cut or tight dresses. Discussions and depictions of prostitutes, whores, illegitimate children and incest are included in the script along with some veiled sexual innuendo. A drawing of a bare-chested woman is shown.

Language: The script contains a handful of terms of Deity, some name-calling and a veiled crude sexual term.

Alcohol / Drug Use: Characters drink in a bar setting on several occasions, sometimes to relieve stress. Some characters are depicted as drunk. Others drink in social settings and at dinner.

Discussion Ideas: Talk About the Movie...

For those who have been out of English classes for a while, what is iambic pentameter? Why would it be so difficult to write an entire play using this poetic format? What does it say about the person who could do this? How does this example play into the controversy about Shakespeare?

The Earl of Essex believes that all art is political and if it is not political it is not art. Why is he so driven to write? How did the popular culture of the time (found in the theater) color the opinions and ideas of the public? How do movies and music in our time do the same thing?

Could this story be told as effectively in a linear fashion rather than using flashbacks? What are the advantages of this style in this movie?

Discover the myths about Queen Elizabeth I.

Get more details about William Shakespeare.

To learn more about the Essex rebellion check here.

Video alternatives

Whether written by Shakespeare or not, the plays for which he takes credit have been performed, adapted and been the inspiration of countless productions. Here are four based on one of his most popular stories: Romeo & Juliet, Gnomeo & Juliet, Letters To Juliet and West Side Story.

Vanessa Redgrave who plays the older Queen Elizabeth in this movie starred as Guenevere in the 1967 film Camelot.. Another movie that depicts the life of this Queen of England is Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Home Video Notes

Home Video Notes: Anonymous

Release Date: 7 February 2012

Anonymous releases to DVD and Blu-ray with the following bonus extras:

- Commentary with Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff

- Deleted scenes

- Who Is The Real William Shakespeare?

Anonymous on Blu-ray also includes:

- Extended scenes.

- More Than Special Effects

- Speak The Speech

- Anonymous PS3 Wallpaper/Theme

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About the Reviewer: Kerry Bennett

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