Roland Emmerich takes a questionable literary controversy and deftly forms it into a compelling Elizabethan political drama in the Shakespeare-themed Anonymous. From Shakespeare’s real identity, to the question of royal ascension, Anonymous weaves an intriguing tale that the Bard himself might be proud of.
Working with a “play within a play” theme, Anonymous starts off with a rainy city street and the real-life Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi running into a theatre. The name of the play on the marquee reads Anonymous. He steps onto stage, delivers a prologue about art and power, and then the stage production seamlessly segues into the movie.
Within the core movie itself, there are a series of flashbacks between when Queen Elizabeth was a young woman (comparatively) and when she was at the end of her reign and everyone was vying for power around her.
Emmerich’s film supports the theory that the man we know as William Shakespeare didn’t actually write the volume of work that we associate with him. Instead, Emmerich (and a whole movement of conspiracy theorists and literary historians), suggest it was the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere, who couldn’t come forward about his talent due to his station.
In Anonymous, Oxford is portrayed as a young man of wealth and breeding who had a passionate love affair with the young queen. He also has a love for the arts, though they were somewhat despised at the time by religious factions and the aristocracy in general. In the flashbacks to Elizabeth’s early reign, we see him as a young man both intelligent and highly educated.
In the late Elizabethan times, he’s an aged man with a somewhat macabre library full of unpublished manuscripts. To protect his protégé from the Queen‘s suspicions and wrath, he decides to use his plays to bring political change to London. He witnesses how the crowds at the theater can be moved to extremes of emotion, and realizes the power playwrights can wield.
Plays at the time were often shut down by the authorities, and writers and actors even arrested for sedition. This accusation could be leveled at any play, even if it just made an allusion to the politics of the day or someone in power, or made fun of one of the nobility by using an actor or character that resembled him/her. Of course, playwrights and writers used this elaborate system of codes and allusion to express the popular opinion.
By controlling the masses, who love the theater, Oxford believes he can have a greater purpose and bring about change. He at first goes to a popular playwright of the day, Ben Jonson, to get his plays produced in the theater. But through a twist, the buffoonish actor named William Shakespeare takes credit for the success of his play.
Left with little choice, Oxford must work through Shakespeare to get his plays onto the stage. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth is being manipulated by her advisor, who is attempting to get the Scottish King James onto the throne after her, and Oxford is attempting to use his plays and his old intimacy with the Queen to stop it.
By Emmerich’s own words, this film is the brainchild of the belief that William Shakespeare The Man did not write William Shakespeare The Legend’s work. As Emmerich digested the theory, he came up with reasons why the real author of all those brilliant plays couldn’t come forward. When Emmerich conceived the idea that it must have something to do with royal ascension and life-and-death politics of the times, the film’s story came together with the proper scope and drama.
Anonymous‘ compelling story, much like something Shakespeare might have written, presents poor heroes, treacherous hunchbacked villains, and all the incest, murder, fraud, violence and statecraft you could wish for. Screenwriter John Orloff (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole) takes some literary license with history, and though this historical fiction presents a different take on popular belief, it is no less entertaining.
Emmerich took a step in a different direction helming Anonymous, constructing a period drama with a limited budget instead of his usual popular big budget actioners like 2012, Independence Day, and Stargate. Though taking a risk with this new film, Emmerich presents a well-oiled, visually compelling film. His Elizabethan London is a warm, colorful re-creation. From the fog-enshrouded bridges and streets, to the grime and squalor of the theater districts. For the most part, I thought the period elements a galvanizing visual adventure.
Since Emmerich relied heavily on green screens, the background scenery is perfect in pitch and tone, though sometimes falls a little flat. The sets were elaborate, the theaters reeked of Shakespeare and impassioned monologues, and the costuming (down to Elizabeth’s brown teeth) was wonderfully theatrical and dramatic.
Unfortunately, some of the characters came across as too embellished, more like caricatures. Shakespeare (The Man) was basically vilified, and presented as a silly semi-idiot actor who stumbles into good fortune and then capitalizes on the chance presented him. He is portrayed as a money-grubbing debtor, a drunkard and womanizer with few (no) redeeming qualities. By the end of the film, he is certainly a character with little nuance that audiences despise.
On a happier note, Rafe Spall played Shakespeare with all the ridiculous swagger filmmakers could hope for. He’s not a loveable baffoon, but he is great fun to watch. Joely Richardson played a young Queen Elizabeth with a mercurial vivaciousness that belied her age. Her character certainly wasn’t the typical virginal queen archetype, and she did justice to the temperamental royal while giving her plenty of humanity.
In an interesting casting decision, Richardson’s real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave was cast as the aged Queen Elizabeth. Redgrave is an established actress, and no stranger to Shakespeare on the stage. She also stars in the not-yet released Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus. Her performance was admirable, though I feel her interpretation on Elizabeth somewhat diminished. She didn’t play her as powerful and willful as one might hope, opting instead to portray a woman who submits quickly to her advisor’s influence and is easily manipulated.
Rhys Ifans (Little Nicky) also took a break from his typical comedic role to play the Earl of Oxford. He not only had the necessary gravitas to play the tragic Edward De Vere, but some shadowy make-up and mournful eyes gave his character a sympathetic air and a dramatic presence. His Edward was a torn and nearly broken man, driven by his forbidden passion for writing and the desire to protect his protege.
Rounding out the remarkable cast of talented British actors was Sebastion Armesto, David Thewlis (Harry Potter), Jamie Campbell Bower (Camelot), and Edward Hogg.
The self-referential qualities of Anonymous sometimes feel a little contrived, but go far to stress the ever-present theme of life imitating art and art imitating life. After all, we are all but players with our different exits and entrances. Though some might feel that the question of authorship is really a moot point, considering we do have all these literary works and who really cares if the man responsible for them was named William Shakespeare or Edward De Vere. A rose by any other name….right?
Anonymous is an effective period drama with some great intrigue. It takes a controversial topic and transforms it into a thrilling political mystery. Emmerich hasn’t re-written history with this film, but he has taken a look at it through a different lens. The period elements and costuming are spot on, and Emmerich’s moody atmosphere and authentic candlelit-lighting style make for a visual and intellectual cinematic feast.