- Rhys Ifans plays the man behind the works of William Shakespeare. Submitted photo.
Were the works attributed to William Shakespeare actually written by one man, and if so, was Shakespeare actually the one man that wrote them? People have been arguing about this since the middle of the 19th century, and who better to address the subject on film than Roland Emmerich, the man who brought the world Independence Day, the 1998 Godzilla remake, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Anonymous is a confusing but entertaining exploration of one of the authorship theories, slathered with sex scandals and political intrigue. John Orloff's screenplay is lurid hooey. I had a good time trying to wade through it.
It doesn't hurt that the production is packed with skilled British actors and that the visuals look so authentic. Emmerich's use of CGI is effective and not nearly as showy as you might expect given his credits.
Orloff selects Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), as the true author. Fearing the political and cultural ramifications of being a popular writer, he tries to get playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to put his name on the works. Jonson is willing to help with the scam, but hesitant to put his name on the Earl's creations, as he feels it would compromise his own work.
While the men try to determine whose name to put on the writings, actor and opportunistic boob William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) responds to audience cries of "Author! Author!" by stepping to the front of the stage and taking credit himself. After some teeth-gnashing, Oxford cuts a deal with the actor to maintain the pretense and an epic scam is born.
That's just one of several plot lines. I won't try to summarize the others - I suggest you grab onto the Shakespeare premise and hold on tight. Your experience will be further complicated by the presence of both the young adult and fully-grown versions of numerous cast members as the screenplay hops between time periods. And then there's the presence of a great many red-haired individuals who look like they could be related. It plays a key part in the story, but adds to the confusion.
Trying to keep up with rapidly-changing events and a slew of individuals whose identities were unclear was not a turn-off for me. I do it every day in the real world. What I did have difficulties with was the film's depiction of William Shakespeare. Yes, I understand that part of the reason people challenged Shakespeare's authorship was that they thought he was insufficiently schooled to have written such complex and informed works. But the Shakespeare presented in the film is a full-on buffoon. Despite being in a cooperative state of mind, it was hard to roll with the notion that anyone in that world would believe that such an obvious nitwit could have written such sophisticated plays.
But never mind that. Better to enjoy the tension, the intrigue and the scandals. Enjoy real-life mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson as the older and younger versions of Queen Elisabeth. They're both quite fine, though Redgrave's turn is particularly amusing and touching. Enjoy the atmosphere and the sense of visual authenticity (they didn't perform plays by torchlight at night, by the way - they were all performed during the day. But forget that - we're never-minding). The bottom line is that Roland Emmerich makes dumbass movies that are sometimes very entertaining and oftentimes not. Anonymous is easily his best film. Make of that what you will.