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Who Really Wrote Hamlet?

Anonymous rewrites Shakespeare's role in Elizabethan theater – and more

Vanessa Redgrave stars in Columbia Pictures' "Anonymous."

Courtesy Columbia TriStar Pictures

Vanessa Redgrave stars as Elizabeth I in <i>Anonymous</i>.

Director: Roland Emmerich
Rated: PG-13, Runtime: 130 mins.
Stars: Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave

En español  |  If you want to make heads or tails of Anonymous, the new Elizabethan-era political thriller, you'd best first stop off at the grocery store checkout for a copy of People, or Us, or maybe Tiger Beat.

That's because in this particular telling of the controversy over who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, the mucky, yucky streets of 16th-century London were populated by pretty boys and svelte girls who all resemble each other in a way similar to those 10-page ad spreads in Vogue, where skeletal models drape themselves over darkly lit daybeds and stare stupidly into space with identical vacuousness.

I tried, I really tried, to keep track of who was who in Anonymous, which is handsomely staged by director Roland Emmerich. His vision of London fairly breathes soot and oozes sludge, his streets teem with huffing horses and hustling merchants. Best of all is Emmerich's evocation of the Tower of London, the palace/prison that loomed over the city as a constant reminder of the Crown's grim authority. As the director of such over-the-top special effects sideshows as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and Godzilla, Emmerich for once puts his visionary skills to good use. His London is as much a character as his actors, and in some cases it gives a much more convincing performance.

That's not to say Emmerich's young cast lacks talent — it's just that by the third reel, the dreamy Earl of Southampton and the hunky Earl of Essex and their similarly flawless pals start to blend into one impossibly droopy-lidded singularity, individually identifiable only to young girls who have the actors' posters pinned to their bedroom walls. Ditto the young women, who come and go identically, their bosoms cruelly crushed by those awful necklines that must leave marks to rival the tattoos that are surely hidden beneath all that silken finery. Among the youngsters some truly fine work is on display —particularly Edward Hogg as the despised hunchbacked antagonist Robert Cecil; and Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, the conflicted poet-playwright who knows the secret of who's really writing Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Armesto is especially heartbreaking in the film's coda, as he confesses a jealousy-fueled betrayal of the playwright.

Said playwright is, of course, not William Shakespeare, who as played by Rafe Spall (Shaun of the Dead) is a strutting, utterly debauched second-rate actor. (The ready acceptance of his authorship by Elizabethan audiences would today be comparable to us all suddenly believing that Ashton Kutcher wrote the collected works of Edward Albee.)

No, the real playwright is the Earl of Oxford, a sensitive middle-aged soul who has been secretly penning these masterpieces his whole life, prevented from publishing them by the strictures of Puritan society. Rhys Ifans brings understated sensitivity to his role, and he provides a strong center for the film.

Best of all, though, is Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth I, the fading monarch, iron-willed and vulnerable, girlish and monstrous. Her final scenes, reflecting on the choices Elizabeth made, the alliances she struck to keep her crown, resonate with the kinds of regret we lesser mortals may sometimes feel, and the resignation that must ultimately accompany them.

Anonymous is most effective when it becomes a meditation on the power of live theater. Emmerich sets that stage, so to speak, in the modern-day prelude and epilogue, spoken to an unseen audience at a New York theater by the great Derek Jacobi. And the theme is reasserted during several marvelously presented Elizabethan theater scenes, where the enraptured audience strains forward to join hands with Henry V during his soaring St. Crispin’s Day speech, and pelts the hated Richard III with food.

The final scenes of Anonymous bristle with revelations, as characters are suddenly confronted with terrible truths about who was related to whom, and who slept with whose own parent, and which handsome rake is the child of which aged aristocrat. Really, it's as if these people went through their whole lives without knowing who was who.

Well, join the club.