What do we really know about Shakespeare? Quite a lot and nothing at all, depending on who you speak to on the subject. The bane of the school student’s existence, it is undeniable that the works attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon have made an incalculable impact on history and culture in the almost 400 years since his death. Despite not being revered in his own time, contemporary Ben Johnson, portrayed in Anonymous by Sebastian Armesto (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), described him as “Soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage”. Yet the debate on his authorship continues, asking whether all of these works should be attributed to one person, a group of people or whether that one person was Shakespeare at all.
Set against the backdrop of the plot against Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave, The Whistleblower) and the Essex Revolution against her, Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) pens elaborate plays and poetry against the mores of the day. In order to see his works released, he approaches Ben Johnson (Armesto) to stage the plays under his own name. Reluctant to do so, the brash actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, One Day) takes the credit, and soon becomes the toast of London. We flashback decades to the affair a young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1) had with a young Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson, TV’s The Tudors), the ramifications of which continue to haunt them.
Anonymous is a dramatised version of the Oxfordian variant of fringe theory proposed almost a century ago, supposing that the 17th Earl of Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. Of course, everybody from Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Darby have been accused of writing the Bard’s texts, with questions around the authorship of Shakespeare’s works beginning a mere sesquicentenary after the man’s death. The conspiratorial nature of this tale lends itself to the current cinematic love of all things shady, most notably the massive riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in an unfortunate hairstyle that is The Da Vinci Code. While the existence of this film no doubt owes more than a passing nod to the success of this sub-genre, the conspiracies behind the authorship of Shakespeare’s works are nothing new. What while no doubt get Jacobean ruffs out of kilter is just how pointed the accusations are at Edward De Vere, there is nothing here any more outlandish than the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love.
Director Roland Emmerich is not known for his “serious” films, given that his recent history has been filled with critical disasters 10,000 BC and 2012, and his filmography is filled with blockbusters Independence Day, Universal Soldier and yes, Godzilla. He isn’t the first name that would come to mind when one thinks of English historical costume dramas, especially that his last foray into historical narrative The Patriot earned him few friends in Blighty. So it comes with complete surprise and delight that his handling of this often complex material, juggling multiple time-lines, family trees and treasured historical figures is done with such confidence and finesse. This is not the same person that blew up the White House, surely?
Much of this narrative strength is undoubtedly due to Emmerich handing over the writing duties to John Orloff (TV’s Band of Brothers, A Mighty Heart), for the first time since 2000’s The Patriot. This allows Emmerich and long-time photographic collaborator Anna Foerster to concentrating on what they do best and create a beautiful looking picture around the narrative. The bookend device of Derek Jacobi in a modern setting perhaps belies a lack of confidence with the material, but none of the meat in the sandwich gives any indication that this is anything other than a professionally staged affair.
Despite being a Welshman playing an English Earl, Rhys Ifans commands a captivating presence in an incredible turnaround from what often amounts to supporting caricatures in his other roles. Similarly, although Rafe Spall plays his Bard for laughs as a right buffon, he is convincing enough to not be over the top. Perhaps the weakest link is Armesto as the conscience of the film, with his moral frustration mixed with admiration regularly translating as sweaty trembling and silent outrage. This minor gripe aside, there is much to like about this slow-burning drama, and will be one to revisit.