NOTE: This review was originally published on September 16, 2011 after I saw Anonymous at the Toronto International Film Festival. I am reprinting it today as it hits limited theaters this Friday, October 27.
Written by John Orloff (A Mighty Heart), Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is a fascinating look at one of several conspiracies behind the true authorship of the works credited to William Shakespeare. It’s smartly presented as a political thriller with an enticing conspiracy at its core. Liberties are taken, but for the most part I think Orloff has done well, attempting to manipulate the story based primarily on the holes in Shakespeare’s history in an attempt to craft a solid political thriller surrounding the man who’s arguably the greatest writer of all-time.
In the case of Anonymous it’s the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship that proves central here, claiming Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is the actual man behind the Bard. Opening in a curious fashion, the film begins on the busy streets of Manhattan as we enter a theater where a man (Derek Jacobi) on stage begins to tell us a myriad of reasons to believe Shakespeare may not be the true author of the works credited to him.
Reasons range from his lack of education to his final will, which makes no mention of his plays, poems or other writings, including 18 unpublished plays at the time. What could possibly be the reason? Without all the facts, history can be bent and Orloff and Emmerich have bent it in such a way that history still, for the most part, holds true, while telling a story that had me wanting to do research of my own.
Told through several flashes in time, the film primarily takes place in London around the years from 1598 to 1603 with brief flashes back in time 30 years earlier, when De Vere (played at a young age by Jamie Campbell Bower) was taken in as ward of Queen Elizabeth I following his father’s death and was subsequently educated by Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis). Cecil saw in Edward an opportunity and had hopes of grooming a king, but Edward’s love of writing finds him out of favor. Yet, with continued hope in his plan, Cecil still marries him off to his daughter Anne.
Edward posing as Shakespeare comes about several years later as he hopes to thwart the Cecils’ plan to seat King James as the future King of England following Elizabeth’s reign. He sees power in the playhouse and decides his words will be enough to move the people to stand up for themselves, but doing it under his own name would be suicide. Therefore he seeks out playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to take up the task of representing the plays as his own, but after confiding in William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), Jonson decides he cannot do it, an opportunity Shakespeare jumps on following a rousing performance of “Henry V” credited to Anonymous and the crowd begins demanding to know the author. Shakespeare takes the stage and the rest is… history?
The greatest aspect of Anonymous is the conspiracy at its core and the way it’s presented. In matters of the heart and politics, I found it fascinating. There are enough questions with regard to Shakespeare that a conspiracy can be levied, and even if you entirely disagree in any such conspiracies I think Anonymous offers a fascinating “what if?”
The performances are, for the most part, top notch with Rhys Ifans standing tall as the Earl of Oxford with a commanding, elegant and dominating performance. Redgrave offers a uniquely fragile look at Queen Elizabeth, following in the footsteps of recent portrayals by Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) and the Oscar winning turn by Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love). I also like the decision to cast Redgrave’s actual daughter, Joely Richardson, to play a younger version of the actress and Edward Hogg adeptly slithers through scenes as the hunchbacked and loathsome Robert Cecil.
I did have problems with some of the shortcuts that were taken, such as a scene where Edward is shuffling through his many plays, setting aside “Macbeth,” “Twelfth Night,” etc. before settling on “Romeo and Juliet.” Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t like the idea he just had these masterworks sitting around waiting to be handed off to whomever came by and when he needed to he could just scribble out “Richard III” in a matter of minutes.
There’s also little emphasis placed on why Edward was choosing each play as he handed them off. Sometimes it was obvious, particularly with “Richard III”, but I still have a hard time figuring out why he would choose “Romeo and Juliet” outside of the possibility he simply believed it was a great play that would improve Shakespeare’s public awareness and therefore create greater attention to his later works. Unfortunately, none of that is really addressed. I like when a filmmaker leaves things for the audience to piece together, but this felt like an overlooked piece of the story.
Otherwise, I was consistently entertained and I hope people don’t dismiss this film or look at it as “A decent film considering Roland Emmerich directed it.” That’s to judge it for who made it not for what it is. You would never guess the director of Independence Day and 2012 had anything to do with this movie. It’s subdued and without grand movements or Earth shattering disasters. It’s measured and accomplished with very few holes that can be poked. Don’t dismiss it as an Emmerich film, see it as a fascinating picture of political intrigue and mystery.
In the end, whether you believe Shakespeare was the true author, believe it was de Vere or if you follow the Stratfordian contention that Shakespeare “borrowed” from the works of others, as far as this film is concerned, your belief is of no concern. Anonymous is simply telling a story based on a theory that can only be argued not proven. The only real truth to come out of the film is that the words credited to Shakespeare are, were and always will be powerful and that is impossible to argue against no matter who wrote them.