Directed by: Roland Emmerich.
Written by: John Orloff.
Starring: Rhys Ifans (Earl of Oxford), Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Sebastian Armesto (Ben Jonson), Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare), David Thewlis (William Cecil), Edward Hogg (Robert Cecil), Xavier Samuel (Earl of Southampton), Sam Reid (Earl of Essex), Jamie Campbell Bower (Young Earl of Oxford), Joely Richardson (Young Queen Elizabeth I), Paolo De Vita (Francesco), Trystan Gravelle (Christopher Marlowe), Robert Emms (Thomas Dekker), Tony Way (Thomas Nashe), Julian Bleach (Captain Richard Pole), Derek Jacobi (Prologue), Alex Hassell (Spencer), James Garnon (Heminge), Mark Rylance (Condell), Helen Baxendale (Anne De Vere), Paula Schramm (Bridget De Vere), Amy Kwolek (Young Anne De Vere), James Clyde (King James I).
For the sake of fairness, I must admit that I have not read any of the actual research done that proclaims that the Earl of Oxford was the real genius, and not William Shakespeare. I was aware before Anonymous that such a theory exists – and that the Earl of Oxford isn’t the only other “alternate Shakespeare” that has been suggested, but I never quite cared enough to explore it any deeper, and when I heard a new movie about the theory was coming out, I wanted to go in fresh. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? After all, if you do any reading about it, you will find out that Mozart wasn’t the goofball or that Saleri wasn’t the villain that Amadeus would have you believe – but that doesn’t mean Milos Forman’s film, or F. Murray Abraham’s performance, aren’t among the best in history. So I was more than willing to give Roland Emmerich’s film a chance on its own terms. Emmerich apparently believes in the truth behind his film strongly – he is even making written materials about the research available to schools because he doesn’t think its right to lie to children in school. After watching Anonymous however, I find that Emmerich is probably going to do more harm to his cause than good. The film seemed wholly unbelievable to me to the point of ridiculousness – but not because it suggests that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays we know, but because all the behind the scenes stuff revolving around Queen Elizabeth I struck me as silly and unbelievable. It certainly doesn’t help that Emmerich (whose previous films include Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012) directs his costume drama with the subtlety of a sledge hammer to the face, and tries to make this into an action packed blockbuster. It didn’t work.
The film opens with the great Shakespearian actor Derek Jacobi taking the stage to tell us that the story we are about to hear is true. We then flashback to the time of Shakespeare and Elizabeth I. Played by Vanessa Redgrave, Elizabeth is about as far away as you can get from Judi Dench’s portrayal of her, at the roughly the same period of her life, in Shakespeare in Love. Rather than a sharp as a tack older lady, Redgrave’s Elizabeth is one step above a doddering old fool. She seems incapable of even remembering anything, let alone running England, which according the movie is pretty much in the hands of the evil Cecil family (led by David Thewlis’ William, her top adviser). Cecil knows that Elizabeth won’t be around much longer, and if he wants his family to remain in power, he needs to convince her to name King James of Scotland as her successor. Elizabeth seems to be leaning more towards the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), one of her supposed bastards, instead. Essex is supported by the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), who trusts the word of the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) more than anything. Oxford has essentially been shunned by the Royal Court for most of his adult life, and is the constant source of disappointment to Cecil, his father in law. He loves Southampton however, and feels he has a way to help him – with his writing. Knowing that someone of his station could never be seen to write something as lowly as a play, he calls on Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to do it for him. He gives him a copy of Henry V and tells him to have it performed under his own name. Not wanting to disgrace his reputation, Jonson lets a drunken, illiterate fool of an actor take credit instead. His name is William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Soon Shakespeare in the toast of the theater scene – with one masterpiece seemingly following another and another to the stage.
If you think I’ve given away the whole plot, don’t worry I haven’t. All of this is essentially established in the first half hour or so, and what follows is a series of double and triple crosses, flashbacks and flashbacks inside of flashbacks, lots of intrigue and lust, jealously and anger and even incest. Oh, and a few battle sequences, in the film mainly, I think, because Emmerich cannot conceive of a movie without battle sequences. Things come to a head when Richard III is performed, with the daring decision to make Richard a hunchback – much like Richard Cecil, who has succeeded his father as Elizabeth’s top adviser.
I found watching Anonymous to be a rather exhausting experience. Everything in the film is made to seem larger than life – the sets, the costumes, the music and the performances. There is no room for subtly here, and for a movie that is largely about people talking, the film seemed to be filled with noise. Emmerich is used to directing action movies, and he directs this movie the same way, and it simply does not work. This is a costume drama for people who don’t like costume dramas – and I like costume dramas.
The one element in the movie that I wholeheartedly loved was Rhys Ifans performance as the Earl of Oxford aka the Real Shakespeare. He seems immune from the bombast that surrounds him, and at times, he seems to be acting in a different, better movie than the one he is stuck in. When he was onscreen, the movie just felt different, and it comes from the confidence he exudes. It’s an excellent performance in a bad movie.
Overall, I can’t say that I liked Anonymous, and it didn’t really make me want to find out the “real story” behind Shakespeare. To quote him “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Call it blasphemous if you want to, but I really don’t care who gets the credit for Shakespeare’s work. His plays are masterpieces, and nothing will ever change that.