William Shakespeare is virtually illiterate in Anonymous, but since the movie seems to have been made for (and by) illiterates, why worry? The film is mainly about Edward de Vere, the highly educated, modestly talented 17th Earl of Oxford, posed in this story as creator of the fabled plays and sonnets.
Rhys Ifans plays him with the wary stiffness of a man who is stuck in a put-on, knows it, and is determined to damn well keep his dignity. When not bending over the ink and quill, Edward is splurging the family fortune (this was true, including lots of litigation along the way). His noble status and sticky politics won’t let Oxford reveal his literary genius, so as cover he enlists scrambling playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto). Ben soon fobs the risky job to actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall).
A buffoonish bumpkin, Will can barely grasp the intrigues, nor can he act. Which does make a village-idiot’s case for Oxford as “Shakespeare.” The first scholarly case was made in 1920 by a teacher named J. Thomas Looney, and in due time the great Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom denounced “the lunatic legions of the Oxfordians” (if you care to get caught in these brambles, read the Wikipedia article “Shakespeare Authorship Question.” Verdict: Will, not Ed).
Anonymous comes from the reigning depositer of commercial mega-dung, Roland Emmerich (2012, The Patriot, Independence Day). For this director, truth is easily shaken and speared. The actual Edward was a touchy, erratic courtier who had serious money problems with Elizabeth I. The film’s young Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) is the hottest dude of the young queen’s bed. Lusty Liz is played by Joely Richardson, who can match the profile but not the talent of her mother, Vanessa Redgrave (who plays the aged queen, in frightful makeup).
You won’t find dopier nonsense (not even on the History Channel, prone to stuff such as UFO Vampires of the Mayan Pyramids) than this picture’s love scenes. Liz in heat coos to Edward, “Are you Prince Hal or Romeo?” years before those plays were written. He burbles a sonnet for her and is rewarded with oral sex (well, it beats a sword tap on the shoulder). Meanwhile, chief minister Lord Cecil (David Thewlis) and his Richard III-ish son scheme to destroy Edward and, as a puritanical bonus, English theater.
For added gravity, a burst of Mozart’s Requiem is heard about 190 years before it was composed. In bad snippets of the plays, the first Shakespearean actors are pickled hams. But how could they believe that these plays were written by a dullard? Derek Jacobi swoops in at start and finish to pick up a gilded check by reminding us what Shakespearean speech can sound like.
Amadeus, the airy fantasy about Mozart, was by comparison an ivory tower of sober scholarship. Here is a film for people who hated Shakespeare in school, who think that iambic pentameter was taught in geometry, and guess that the first Hamlet was, uh...Simon Cowell? The movie, to its shame, enshrines ignorance about Shakespeare.
Oranges and Sunshine
The name Christian Brothers is associated with distilled spirits but also a monastic spirituality defiled by child-abuse scandals. The religious order paid a huge settlement in Ireland. The Australian branch has also sinned, notably with a monastic molester named (jeezus) Brother Bob Best, and boys were used as slave labor to build a huge complex in the desert.
Such is the plot hub of Oranges and Sunshine, a movie deliberately true to the sturdy film realism that director Jim Loach learned from his father, famous English director Ken Loach. The emotional hub is Emily Watson, doing what may be her finest film work since Breaking the Waves in 1996. As Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker, Watson is so much the real deal that you might not register how terrific her acting is. A genuine public servant with a devoted husband and two kids, Margaret is suddenly ambushed when an old case is thrust upon her by a woman from Down Under. It upends her life.
With much archival sleuthing and many trips to Australia, she exposes a buried scandal: some 130,000 kids were sent from postwar Britain with the secretive support of two governments and religious authorities. They were orphaned, some unwanted because “illegitimate” left more of a stigma than “abuse.” The monastics had protectors and wealth, and the victims were small, scared, parentless.
Margaret hangs in for the long fight, often depressed, threatened, jet lagged, missing her family. Watson never lights a love-me candle, never floats a halo. Excellent support includes Richard Dillane as her husband, Hugo Weaving as a man desperate to find his mother, David Wenham as an Aussie whose cockiness covers deep agony, and others. Denson Baker’s images revel in the UK/Australia contrast. The film is a tad long, the final showdown rather stagey. But the story, long overdue for telling, is told well.
The mom of smart Nigel Slater, a British boy in the ’60s, is dying. Not from her food, though she’s a dreadful cook. Nigel strives to provide better grub, but his depressed dad (Ken Stott) snarls at him. After mum exits, the father cozies up to Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter, far from her Bellatrix in the Harry Potter films). The brassy cleaning lady latches on tight and prepares rich, gut-stuffer meals.
In Toast, director S.J. Clarkson uses a perky, picture-book tone that serves the cuisine humor fairly well but leaves the emotional themes half baked. Played by Oscar Kennedy (boy) and Freddie Highmore (teen), Nigel provides a topping surprise you might easily predict. The other, deflating surprise is that he is such a snobbish snot to Mrs. Potter, who has a lively spirit and could teach Nigel the kitchen skills he claims to crave. Based on a memoir by chef Nigel Slater, Toast pops up, then lies flat. Like toast.
Italian Film Festival
Sometimes the best Italian meal is on screen. The San Diego Italian Film Festival offers its fifth menu October 28 to November 12. It includes a Neorealism Retrospective of three classics: Robert Rossellini’s Open City, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, and the multi-director Giorni di gloria in new subtitled prints from Italy. Again, home base is the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, though the opening night members’ party and film, Basilicata Coast to Coast from Rocco Papaleo (not to be confused with the 1971 Mastroianni film My Name is Rocco Papaleo), is happening at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club.