Although it may seem absurd, conspiracy theorists have been haggling about the true authorship of William Shakespeare’s works for many years. In fact, there are barely enough hangars for those people to hang their tinfoil hats, and with a film like Anonymous, Roland Emmerich proves he’s a member of their little club. The director behind such disaster trash epics like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, has decided it’s simply not enough to create another apocalyptic storm. So for his next and greatest trick yet, he’ll see if it’s possible to do as much damage to the Immortal Bard as he did to the White House in Independence Day.
And damage him he does. In Emmerich’s vision, Shakespeare(Rafe Spall) is a bumbling fool. An actor, but not a terribly good one, with a comic selfishness and insatiable greed. The film begins in the present, with character actor Derek Jacobi regaling a theater audience with the details of the great mystery. None of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts have ever been discovered in over 400 years. When he died at the age of 52, he mentioned nothing of his work.It’s the type of omission sure to raise a few eyebrows, but hardly worth all this time and “grassy knoll” level analysis. Emmerich thankfully fills in the gaps with a twisty, salacious tale of royal intrigue, adultery, and murder.
The star of the show, and the most popular current candidate to be the real Shakespeare, is Edward de Vere(Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford. A gifted scholar and aristocrat who once was being groomed to be a major player in Queen Elizabeth’s court, Edward is now a shell of the man he was meant to be. But being a writer in those days was a dangerous thing. Being a playwright was far worse, as in this time the pen was truly mightier than the sword, capable of swinging the opinions of the populace with wit and comedy. In an attempt to do just that, hopefully manipulating the choosing of Elizabeth’s successor, Edward taps a non-descript writer named Ben Jonson(Sebastian Armesto) to take credit for all his works. There’s just one problem. The oafish Shakespeare actually steps in and lays claim, both as a means of future blackmail and to quickly attain the fame he always wanted.
Most of Emmerich’s films tend to be much ado about nothing(sorry I had to!), so he deserves credit for taking on something he’s clearly passionate about. It might be ludicrous and shot full of holes like a piece of cheesecloth, but Emmerich believes in the theory. Perhaps too much so, as from the very beginning it’s obvious his plans to rub our noses in this brilliant idea. His portrayal of Shakespeare not just as a fraud but as a clown are just one small part of it. Emmerich, along with a dodgy script by John Orloff, then goes an extra step by imagining out of whole cloth that the Queen was hardly the chaste figure some have portrayed her to be, but was instead a flighty skank biscuit with numerous lovers and bastard children littered all over England. Part of the Oxford theory presumes a love affair between the Queen and Edward, so that part is to be expected. However, Emmerich twists it into an incestuous, flatly absurd piece of work that would make Oeduipus blush.
The problems with the film aren’t technical, as it’s a beautifully shot representation of the time period. As much of a hack director as Emmerich has proven to be over the years, art design is not one of his problems. It’s in his lack of subtlety and nuance, and those problems plague Anonymous from the start. The story jumps back and forth through a crazy and incomprehensible use of flashback, making it more difficult to separate one stuffy aristocrat from the next. All of the various political intrigues, mostly surrounding the choice for Elizabeth’s successor, are handled in the tackiest, most confusing way possible and play like a rushed episode of The Tudors.
As crazy as it sounds, this is still far and away the best film Roland Emmerich has ever made because at least it has something to say. It might be ridiculous and cringe worthy to anybody who knows even a little bit about the time period and Shakespeare in particular, but there’s a very clear point of view here with lots of big ideas. The cast, especially Rhys Ifans’ deeply moving portrayal of Edward, is remarkable. Casting the mother/daughter duo of Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave to play Elizabeth at two different stages of her randy life was an inspired decision. Spall is a comic breath of fresh air as Shakespeare. The characterization might be silly, but Spall attacks the role wholeheartedly.
Anonymous is hardly a classical piece of work, it’s more of a salacious guilty pleasure and more fun than that English Lit class you took.