Movie Review: Anonymous
By Matthew Huntley
November 7, 2011
Anonymous asks us to believe that William Shakespeare was a semi-illiterate drunk who had no hand in writing the plays he’s been credited for. The real playwright, the movie tells us, was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who wrote his works as a way to incite social revolution. Claiming Shakespeare was a fraud is a bold statement, although it’s not exactly a new one. The original notion dates back to the mid-1800s, while the Oxford theory specifically became part of our collective consciousness in 1920 when J. Thomas Looney proposed it in his book, Shakespeare Identified. Anonymous is more or less an adaptation of Looney’s work, but whether or not it’s true, the movie makes no claim to be based on fact. It merely brings the idea forward for entertainment's sake, and entertaining it is.
Even though the movie paints Shakespeare in an ill light, his screen time is limited. He’s portrayed devilishly by Rafe Spall as a womanizing simpleton who, working as an actor, seized the opportunity to make extra money by taking credit for someone else’s work, even if it meant killing for it. But his role is relatively minor in this story. Most of the drama centers on de Vere (Rhys Ifans, in a commanding performance), who witnesses just how influential plays can be in 16th century England and decides to exploit their popularity in order to send messages to the masses.
In flashback, we see de Vere as an exceptionally gifted child, writing plays as young as 10 and impressing an enthusiastic, nubile Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson). Years later, after being forced to live with the conservative Cecil family, who view things like plays and art as sinful and a waste of time, de Vere has an affair with Elizabeth and, unbeknownst to him, she bears his illegitimate son. The movie suggests Elizabeth had many affairs and mothered other children that were subsequently adopted off, including the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid).
Near the end of the Elizabethan era, when the aging Queen (Vanessa Redgrave) has no clear successor, de Vere pushes for the Earl of Essex to inherit the English throne instead of James, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. James is advocated by de Vere’s former guardian, the corrupt and power-hungry William Cecil (David Thewlis). de Vere, who’s in too high of a political position to write plays, calls upon another local playwright, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), to assume authorship of his works so they can be heard by the people (de Vere hopes they will see the links between the characters of such plays as “Richard III” and “Henry V” and the Cecils, in order to expose the latter for their true nature). That’s when Shakespeare steps in and steals the role from Jonson, who is the only one mindful of the truth.
The plot is more intricate, and perhaps convoluted, than I’m leading on, but this isn’t a flaw as much as an observation. For a historical drama, Anonymous moves with such splendid energy and becomes so engaging you can see yourself watching it more than once, if only to absorb its atmosphere. Sebastian T. Krawinkel’s production design, not to mention the art direction and cinematography, deserve special recognition because they work seamlessly to make the movie dark, sinister and classy all at once. And the special effects, used primarily to recreate a cold and gray 16th century England, are magnificent and often very convincing. There’s a breathtaking aerial shot during a funeral scene that I’m sure was computer generated but it’s executed with such detail that we simply accept we’re looking at real people and structures. In shots such as these, you can usually point out the digital flaws, but Anonymous doesn’t make it so easy.
Is it preposterous what John Orloff’s screenplay is asking us to believe? Probably, and while the movie operates on the level of melodrama, the actors imbue it with substance and conviction. Because they take the story seriously, we do too. They elevate it beyond just a mere production exercise and lend it the same attention and respect as a real Shakespeare play, which I’m sure was the point. The movie is bookended by scenes from a modern day New York City playhouse, where a narrator (Derek Jakobi) recites a prologue that dissolves into the main story. It’s a clever mechanism that brings us in and, despite our reservations about its accuracy and theories, the movie keeps us there.
Given his resume, I’ve always hesitated to call Roland Emmerich a filmmaker of substance, which isn’t to say he’s without talent and doesn’t know how to pull off a large scale production, but he’s mostly known for popcorn fluff (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow). Anonymous urges me to think twice. It’s proof Emmerich can direct actors and generate real emotion, and I’d be curious to see how he would handle a smaller project that’s more character-driven. I think he has it in him, because although there may not be a whole lot of credence to what Anonymous is alleging to be true, there’s something real and genuine about the way it’s told.