Movie Review: ‘Anonymous’
Roland Emmerich tackles the contentious issue of who really penned the works of William Shakespeare in Anonymous, a sudsy bodice-ripping soap opera set during Elizabethan era London. The story embraces the Oxford theory of Shakespeare authorship; that the Earl of Oxford actually wrote the works we celebrate. William Shakespeare was but a dim-witted actor who took the credit. It’s an interesting premise, but at the end of the day, who really cares? The works exist, and whoever wrote them will always be William Shakespeare, even if he wasn’t really William Shakespeare. Make sense? Neither does the movie.
Anonymous looks good, and fulfills all the superficial requirements of a good old period piece. The set pieces and costumes are gorgeous, and the film is well acted, but the story (by John Orloff) is a convoluted mess. Keeping the contiguous storylines straight would require a detailed flow chart, something I wasn’t privy to during my screening. Consequently, the movie was well into its third act before I finally figured out who some of the central characters actually were. Without any prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s story, I found the film a frustrating and tedious. It’s a pity, because there is a great movie buried under the rubble, and a streamlined script would have changed things dramatically.
Anonymous begins (after a brief intro from real-life Shakespeare actor Derek Jacobi) with the arrest of playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto). The rest of the film unfolds through flashbacks, and multiple actors play multiple characters in different flashbacks. This works splendidly when real life mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play Queen Elizabeth at different ages. It’s a real treat to see the women on screen in the same film, and it was a stroke of genius to cast the two as the same woman.
However, it does not work as well when it comes to several of the male characters; Edward De Vere-Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bowers, and Luke Thomas Taylor), the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Southampton, and hunchback villain Robert Cecil. Each of them is played by at least two actors. There is also the actor William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson to keep straight. Complicating matters further is the unfortunate fact hat almost every man in the film has the same facial hair as well as hair color. Since most of the actors are not household names, this makes it very difficult to keep the characters straight, my biggest problem with the film.
There are three distinct storylines as well; Queen Elizabeth’s trampy liaisons that result in a multitude of bastard offspring, Edward De Vere’s inability to live out his true destiny as a writer, and the attempt to overthrow Queen Elizabeth by Earl of Essex and Earl of Southampton. A lot of behind the scenes drama unfolds at the infamous Globe Theatre. All these elements never pull together seamlessly; rather the film jumps from one storyline and/or flashback to another. It’s exhausting.
That being said, there is much to like about the film. The acting is solid, and Rhys Ifans is really remarkable in the role of Edward De Vere. I was impressed with Emmerich’s ability to bring 16thcentury London to life, and the scenes at the Globe Theatre feel particularly authentic. Those with a prior knowledge of Elizabethan history or Shakespeare will certainly find the film more enjoyable than the average layperson. It succeeds as a costume drama, but fails as a compelling story.
Anonymous is rated PG-13. Directed by Roland Emmerich, written by John Orloff. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Edward Hogg, and Xavier Samuel.
I’m no historian, but it seems best to go into this film treating it as pure fiction. Those in the know maintain that there is not one shred of actual evidence to back up the Oxford theory. Historical drama purists are likely to be angered by the liberties the story takes. However, if you take it with a grain of salt and can prevent getting mired down by the story, you just might enjoy yourself.