With all due respect to the writing and literature professors I depended on to educate me as I earned both a Bachelors and a Masters in English, I feel I must admit that I haven’t read a word written by William Shakespeare, nor have I seen one of his plays. I’ve heard nothing but good things, though. And looking back on his history, I marvel at the fact the he rose from his very humble roots to become what many consider the greatest writer in the English language. Despite having thirty-seven plays, 154 sonnets, and several poems to his name, there are those who passionately argue against Shakespeare’s authorship and declare him as nothing more than a front for the writer or writers who, for unknown reasons, could not accept credit. Several theories have surfaced over the centuries, but the most popular cites Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author of the works attributed to Shakespeare.
It’s this particular theory that forms the basis of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, a taut and deeply engrossing tale of political intrigue in Elizabethan England. I’m under no illusions that the film is in any way, shape, or form historically accurate, and to be perfectly frank, I don’t think that matters in the slightest; remove history altogether, and you would still have the suspenseful multilayered plot, the rich characters, the flowing dialogue, and the stunning visuals. Whatever side of the Shakespearian fence you happen to fall on – assuming, of course, that you’re deeply embroiled in this debate, in which case I think you have too much time on your hands – my sincerest hope is that you will set aside your principles for 130 minutes and simply enjoy the film for what it is.
The film’s innate theatricality is beautifully exemplified by bookend sequences taking place in present day New York City, in which we see Derek Jacobi lecturing a full audience on the falsehood of Shakespeare’s literary status. We quickly discover that the story is actually a play that’s being performed. At least, that’s how it initially appears; just as the first act begins, the film transitions into a full-scale period piece, meaning we have actually been transported back in time and are bearing witness to the events as they unfolded. We follow Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), whose penchant for writing political plays is stifled by his status as an aristocrat. He seeks out English playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), recently arrested on charges of treason, to stage and take credit for a new play based on Henry V.
After the performance, however, a young actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steps onto the stage and proclaims himself as the playwright. Thus, history has been set into motion. As portrayed in this film, Shakespeare is an illiterate drunk. We see not a trace of nobility, grace, or genius – he’s a mercilessly ambitious opportunist looking to become famous. I wonder: Is this depiction nothing more than dramatic license, or is screenwriter John Orloff so unconvinced of Shakespeare’s literary prowess that he wanted to discredit him on all levels, including his personality? I lean towards the former, although Orloff has been vocal in his skepticism for over twenty years. No matter; when I look at this movie, I see a lurid drama first and a historical interpretation second. I’m of the opinion that all audiences should view it that way.
One of Emmerich’s more interesting narrative techniques is frequently shifting the story back and forth through time, revealing not only young and old versions of the same characters, but also a labyrinthine power struggle between the Tudors and the Cecils over the succession of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave). I don’t want to reveal too much here, since half the fun is in experiencing the twists and turns. What I can say is that it ties in with a rebellion led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Sussex (Sebastian Reid). I can also say that de Vere is more closely affiliated with the crown than you might think. A key character, who I will not reveal, sums it up beautifully with this line of dialogue: “Isn’t it delicious? It’s almost like a Greek tragedy.”
Roland Emmerich has had his fun with a series of apocalyptic science fiction films, and for much of the time, I was along for the ride. Say what you will about the plot of 2012 – you cannot convince me you’ve seen a movie in which cities are more spectacularly destroyed. Having said that, Anonymous is certainly one of the best films he has ever made. Despite its questionable perception of William Shakespeare, and despite its glaring historical inconsistencies (see Wikipedia for a complete list), the film is a tense, challenging political thriller that always keeps you guessing. Regardless of how familiar you are with Shakespeare’s works, regardless of whether or not you have a vested interested in their true authorship, nothing should hold you back from seeing this movie.