| Like the conspiracy theory it’s based on, which claims William Shakespeare didn’t actually write any of his works, “Anonymous” is an enigma.
Theories calling into question Shakespeare’s true authorship have been tossed around for over 150 years, but they’ve never held weight with scholars. “Anonymous” finally brings the idea from fringe conjecture into mainstream consciousness, and it’s an intriguing debate, without a doubt–even if it lacks in real evidence.
The film offers one interpretation, but it’s a convoluted, occasionally perplexing story that takes liberties with historical accuracy, likely to lose viewers not paying close attention. Here’s the simple version: secretly genius playwright Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is limited by the royal court’s disapproval of theatre and his own position of nobility. Feeling it’s time for his voice to be heard, he winds up publishing his provocative writings through proxy Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). His plays heavily influence the public, and he uses this power over the masses to support a rebellion for his colleague to become the elderly Queen Elizabeth I’s (Vanessa Redgrave) immediate successor.
Throughout all the rampant political duplicity of the plot, writer John Orloff intersperses flashbacks of de Vere as a younger man (Jaime Campbell Bower), showing how he was taken in by the royal family and his early poetic brilliance. The illicit romance he develops with the queen in her younger years (Joelyn Richardson) provides the most interesting facet of the story, carrying severe consequences and dramatic heft in both timelines.
Unfortunately, the first third of “Anonymous” suffers from some clunky shifts between these two narratives, and the large number of characters introduced in such a short time span is fairly overwhelming. Confusion arises out of this jumbled storytelling, and it takes about 40 minutes to get comfortable enough with all the situations and players.
After this it still requires an effort to follow the plot, but Orloff balances it out and manages to weave the rest of the events into an engrossing, intellectual journey with a devastatingly powerful twist, soaking the whole tale in ironic tragedy. He also rewards viewers for their familiarity with Shakespeare’s works, showcasing snippets of many of his plays and incorporating them thematically, without bogging the movie down in outlandish Shakespearean language.
The real head-scratcher here, however, is the director of this Elizabethan drama: Roland Emmerich, disaster movie extraordinaire and destroyer of worlds. It’s a wonder why the hack behind big, dumb and loud blockbusters like “2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Independence Day” decided to make such a specialty piece like this. Maybe he wanted to create something respectable and thoughtful for a change. Surprisingly, he actually accomplishes just that.
Emmerich’s film “The Patriot” is notorious for its historical inaccuracies, and the same can be said of “Anonymous” (a Shakespearean scholar even wrote an article in the recent New York Times Magazine debunking the film’s premise and the faulty chronology). That said, Emmerich’s movies always require pretty high suspension of disbelief, but the way he plunges viewers straight into each world definitely makes it easier.
His main tool for this is usually grandiose, over-the-top special effects and action, but here he utilizes hardly any CGI. The extravagantly detailed costumes and meticulously crafted sets offer the entrancing visuals this time around. But, like Shakespeare, Emmerich lets the characters and story take center stage.
Maybe it’s the lack of famous faces, or maybe Shakespeare just brings out the best in actors–either way, Emmerich draws refined, rousing performances out of his entire cast. Ifans clearly stands out, imbuing de Vere with a constant gravity of importance, but Campbell Bower equally impresses, commanding the screen as de Vere in his fiercer, more willful youth. Richardson even brings an inviting warmth and beauty to the film, although the real highlight comes from David Thewlis as the queen’s villainous and conniving advisor. So courageous and kindly as Lupin in the “Harry Potter” series, he’s a dastardly pleasure to watch here.
"Anonymous” succeeds in casting a shadow of a doubt into viewers’ minds about the full authenticity of Shakespeare’s authorship, just don’t expect a strong, plausible and historically accurate case for an alternative author. Instead it provides an engaging period piece of manipulative lies and betrayal, costly romance and political upheaval in the royal court–the kind of captivating, layered drama Shakespeare is all about.