Based on a semi-popular theory that William Shakespeare’s works were actually written by someone else, Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is full of more secrecy, backstabbing and political maneuvering than the US Congress. Does it matter that a few minutes spent on Wikipedia is enough to poke giant holes in the sequence of events the film presents? Not really.
Emmerich, along with screenwriter John Orloff, weaves an intriguing tale that casts the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans), as a man whose only passion is to write, a passion he can no longer indulge after marrying into a family of Puritans whose patriarch (David Thewliss) is Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted advisor. De Vere has also been banished from the Royal Court and spends his days at the theater, where a crop of talented actors and playwrights take to the stage to rail against the increasingly oppressive Puritan influence.
When De Vere learns of a plot to name King James of Scotland as heir to the throne, he recruits struggling writer Benjamin Jonson and devises a plan to fan the flames of rebellion, not with weapons, but with words. Supplying Jonson with a stack of manuscripts, he instructs the young playwright to take full credit for their authorship and to begin performing immediately, but the thinly veiled criticisms of the current Royal Court leave Jonson terrified of responsibility, lest he find himself afoul of the law. However, the fame and adoration bestowed upon the productions is far too much for a young actor named Will Shakespeare to resist, and when he proudly proclaims himself the author, he has no idea what repercussions he’ll be faced with.
Anonymous is expertly paced, frequently delving into the past and slowly filling in the details on the long, complicated relationship between the principal characters. As each layer is peeled away and a new detail is uncovered, a much larger conspiracy is unveiled, and a shocking revelation near the end of the film forces the audience to completely re-examine everything they’ve experienced up to that point.
Ifans gives a wonderfully understated performance as De Vere, a hollow shell of a man who has seen every hope and dream taken from him during his life. As Queen Elizabeth, Vanessa Redgrave is equally captivating, and the same can be said for her daughter, Joely Richardson, who plays the younger Elizabeth in the film’s many flashbacks. Orloff’s clever script envisions Shakespeare as a shallow, cunning opportunist, and Rafe Spall’s portrayal of the bard is a true scene-stealer.
After making his name at the helm of big-budget disaster films such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, it’s refreshing to see Emmerich trying something so completely different. Based on his previous body of work, I would never have believed him capable of creating something so entertaining, but the characters he creates and the world they inhabit defy every expectation. This one is not to be missed.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10