The mere idea that the work accredited to William Shakespeare is not really his own writing seems almost scandalous -- not to mention attacking someone’s validity 395 years after his death. But maybe it’s right to question this authorship. After all, Shakespeare was the son of an illiterate tradesman and had only a village school education. His death in 1616 was met with silence, and his illiterate wife and children were bequeathed only his “second best bed” -- no money – and even more shockingly, his will mentions no books or manuscripts of any kind. Could this man have written literary masterpieces such as The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and Henry V? That’s the premise behind Director Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous.
The film begins as a man (Derek Jacobi) lumbers into a New York theatre in modern time to deliver the prologue and epilogue of a play titled Anonymous. He announces that Shakespeare did not leave a single manuscript when he died and that the real author of those works was Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Vanessa Redgrave & Rhys Ifans
Next, the movie transitions to early England where Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) has penned marvelous plays and poems written in brilliant dialogue but does not want anyone to know he’s the author. Why? Mainly because he married into a Puritan family and his often sensuous words would be considered reprehensible. So de Vere sends his work to the theatre via Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), another playwright. The narrator of the plays, a Globe actor by the name of Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), reads the plays -- and since no other name is attached and they draw great favor form the queen -- professes that he wrote them.
Eventually politics raises its head, and someone wants those plays. Will is questioned, even beaten and tortured by the Queen’s royal guard to confess where they are hidden. He maintains they were burned in the fire the guards set to destroy the theatre. But were they?
From here on out, screenwriter John Orloff (A Mighty Heart) delivers a beautiful visual story. However, it often lost me with flashbacks away from the Elizabethan time period, and I had trouble keeping up with who was bedding the queen. From one castle to another, from loving someone then condemning them to die, Anonymous is filled with intrigue, danger, double crossings and death – to some by a mere command.
Jamie Campbell Bower
The cast, which often must have two performers for the old and younger characters, is fabulous. Seasoned film veteran Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson play the younger and older Queen Elizabeth, and they are wonderful. While Ifans is polished and distinguished as the elder Earl, Jamie Campbell Bower possesses the sexual charm as the younger Earl entices his way into the queen’s bed. Spall does an excellent job as the rascally actor who takes on the identity of the Duke’s work. (SPOILER ALERT) He’s also responsible for killing Christopher Marlowe (Tristan Gravelle) because he was going to reveal de Vere as the real writer. This is an interesting angle since Christopher Marlowe is actually a name in history often associated with the Shakespeare conspiracy as the real writer.
Anonymous is a very different film for director Emmerich, who usually goes for big blockbusters like 2012, Godzilla, and Independence Day. Still, he’s known for putting his full arsenal into every film. Although this movie never answers the question it presents, and I remained confused about the characters and their stories throughout, my interest was always kept alive by Anna J. Foerster’s wonderful direction of photography and Lisy Christl’s majestic costumes. These elements, along with fine performances, made the movie enjoyable for me.
Photo Credits: Reiner Bajo / Columbia TriStar Marketing Group.