(L to R) Actor Sebastian Armesto, screenwriter John Orloff, actors Edward Hogg, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, director Roland Emmerich, actors Jamie Campbell Bower, Rafe Spall, Rhys Ifans, and Sam Reid attend the Premiere for Anonymous at the 55th BFI London Film Festival at Empire Leicester Square on October 25, 2011 in London, England. (Getty Images)more pics »
The Bottom Line Should you see it? Yes.
Why? A taut period piece with exceptional performances, although it does help to have a working knowledge of the time. Director Roland Emmerich's first real "passion project" is based around a controversial theory: did William Shakespeare really write his classic plays? The project is his newest film,Anonymous, written by John Orloff.Anonymousposits Shakespeare was not only a fraud, but a bumbling confidence man who leapt at the opportunity to take credit for the magnificent works of the time. This hypothesis is called "Oxfordian Theory" and has ruminated in the minds of great thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain. The most prevalent thory, and the one embraced byAnonymous,is that Shakespeare's plays were all written by Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
At the center of Oxfordian Theory rests the notion that Shakespeare was not worldly or sophisticated enough to have written his works, which are largely about royal pursuits, based on foreign soil, and involving stories and intellectual ideas not available to a poor, simple, theater actor like Shakespeare. It would make more sense that the plays were written by someone of royal blood, someone with the life and experiences of a wordly traveler. Someone like DeVere. Both the writer and director are believers in the theory, and they have created a downright Shakesperean-themed film filled with fools, paramours, royal scandal, and executions to help explain how time and society may have given birth to one of the most shocking truths in history.
Anonymousintroduces a slew of 16th century British characters, all based on real people. DeVere (Rhys Ifans) is at the center of the film. He is artistically inclined since his youth and comes to live as a ward in the home of William Cecil (David Thewlis) at Queen Elizabeth's (Joely Richardson) request (Cecil is the Queen's chief council). The young Queen is a fan of the arts, but Cecil is rabidly against any artistic expression and sees it as sin against God. Because of a scandalous affair, Cecil is able to blackmail DeVere to never make his art public, and thus quell the Queen's interest in the theatre. Emmerich tells the story in flashback. Scenes which take place 20 years apart frequently bump against each other.
As DeVere ages, his thirst to express himself overcomes his fear of Cecil. DeVere has written dozens of plays over the years and has kept them all in a cabinet in his castle. He soon strikes a deal with the playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to take his plays public. DeVere gets to see his plays put to life, and Jonson gets the credit, and payment as well. Things turn afoul when local actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) publicly claims credit for the first play. Jonson is forced to stand aside and allow the boorish and juvenile Shakespeare to collect the fame. As a corollary for the main plot, Emmerich takes us through more royal family intrigue involving the Queen and DeVere, attempting to explain politically how such an event could occur.
Anonymoussucceeds as an effective period piece in most ways. The production design may be the biggest star of the film. The famous Shakesperean theater The Globe was recreated specifically for the film (as was done inShakespeare in Love). The dank streets of London are perfectly filthy and lit with the dimness of the time. The costume design is similarly spot on. The royals, especially, seem to have climbed down from the oil canvases of Hilliard or Van Dyck.
Emmerich proves a resourceful hand, conveying the convoluted plot-line with deft detail. His previous epic action genre films (2012, Independence Day) left much to be desired in the way of story, but he has the touch in Anonymous. The flashback scenes get a bit muddled, but a knowledge of the time and characters is a prerequisite for a film like this. Working with a $30 million budget, Emmerich seems to have stretched every penny.
John Orloff's script is ambitious, but leaves something to be desired. His depiction of Shakespeare is unrealistic at best. Spall plays him with such ineptitude, it's hard to believe anyone of the time would have believed he could've written such magnanimous plays. The rest of the cast is solid. Ifans is passionate as DeVere, Thewlis is cut-throat as the sinister Cecil, and Queen Elizabeth is played effectively by two actresses. Richardson brings a naivete but also a confidence to the young Queen, and Vanessa Redgrave stands out as the elder version. Redgrave brings a subtle confusion to the elderly Elizabeth that gives her performance real grace. In all,Anonymousis a compelling look at a very unpopular subject. It is Emmerich's best feature film by far and hopefully the start of a new path for his career.