Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Derek Jacobi
US theatrical: 28 Oct 2011 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 1 Nov 2011 (General release)
What happens when generations of disgruntled scholars, still smarting from their mandatory matriculation on the works (and sonnets) of a certain celebrated British playwright, get a chance to participate in the post-modern pastime of conspiracy theorist and aim their anger at The Bard? Anonymous, that’s the only conclusion one can draw. A weird amalgamation of intriguing costume drama and complete and utter fictionalized bullshit , this movie wants to remake the man, the myth, and the maddening essay question known as William Shakespeare. It tries to come up with a compelling argument that someone else, someone incapable of taking credit at the time or conceiving of a way to do so posthumously, found a front for their efforts - and then somehow, that stand-in got circumvented by a drunken lout with a familiar name and nothing but greed in his proposed greatest scribe persona. Right.
If it’s all a bit confusing, director Roland Emmerich (he of massive popcorn disaster film blockbuster fame) paints the premise in broad, easy to digest strokes. The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) has long held a torch for his aging Queen, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). At one point in their youth, he was viable suitor for the Virgin Monarch, but place and position forced him to retreat into an arranged marriage with the daughter of Her Majesty’s top advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis). Disinterested in politics or policymaking, de Vere loses himself in playwrighting, which is considered a sin in his puritanical household.
A true patron of the arts and desperate to get his own work seen, he approaches a working scribe named Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) with hopes he will submit the Earl’s efforts as his own. Unfortunately, a momentary lapse allows actor and all around screw-up, Williams Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to take credit, ruining de Vere’s carefully proposed plan. When the plays become a hit anyway, our anonymous author sees a way of persuading the public to support Elizabeth and circumvent plans to put a the son of Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne.
If convolution where compliments, Anonymous would be one highly flattered film. It spends so much time twisting the truth into its version of reality that it’s basically selling us science fiction. While the question of Shakespeare’s genius (or argued lack thereof) has long electrified a college literature class, turning such trifle into a two hour attempt at Merchant and Ivory is a tad irritating. Without any proof, without a complete rewriting of British history from said era onward, all we end up with is this movie’s word against a centuries old body of consideration - and the celluloid is doing a sloppy job of selling itself. If we are to believe this version of English history, Elizabeth was a whore, she had several potential heirs out or wedlock, and was persuaded to punish them all because of vanity and a varied grasp of her own faculties and force of reign.
Into this flummoxing female folly comes Ifans’ Earl, a complicated man who just can’t seem to catch a break. He has the unfortunate luck to grow old in a time of terrible religious persecution, where nobility dare not undermine the authority of the Church and those betrothed to it. Because he is raised by The Cecils and must abide by their insane fundamentalist beliefs, he cannot pursue his muse. Instead, he retreats to an oversized study filled with volumes of his hobby, his snooty wife giving him grief every scribbled step of the way. Even within such a strict social dynamic, however, it’s hard to see de Vere as being capable of such creative subterfuge. With an entire court jockeying for favor and special dispensation, someone would have revealed his secret eventually. If not, then the lack of proof legitimizes Shakespeare’s own claims.
None of this really matters to the movie, however. Emmerich and his cast are out to make such malarkey as persuasive as possible, and for the most part, they succeed. Sure, 17th century London looks laughably fake here, like Rome ala Gladiator in its barely passable paintbox designs and hygiene can vary from character to character, but the end result is compelling, if not completely conclusive. In general, the actors fill their roles with the right amount of respect. Only Spall’s Shakespeare is laughable in his over the top gleeful oafishness. All that’s missing from his miscreant interpretation is a pair of overalls, a bottle of moonshine, and an inbred son in pantaloons playing the banjo.
Yet it’s Ifans that comes across as the best guide through this questionable debate, a believable substitute for the standard Shakespeare ideal. He looks the part, plays it perfectly, and never once pretends to be more important or interested than need be. While his arc is rather limited, his interpretation of same is not. Emmerich also earns some uneasy praise for how he handles the actual plays. We get to see snippets here and there, and since the story indicates that many of de Vere’s ‘works’ were written as responses to the standard social morays and power struggles, these visual cues make the material sing. While it would have been nice to see a few more of Shakespeare’s questionable epics interpreted, what we are given here is very good indeed.
Unfortunately, Anonymous is bound to start up discussions where none need exist. In fact, it’s easy to see this movie becoming the JFK for the letters set, a scandalous stretching of the truth without a single sensible way to respond against it. Sure, the university crowd has continued to crow about the (limited) veracity in this narrative, but media is strong mojo. In a decade, there will probably be many more doubters of the celebrated Bard than those who even bother in his defense.
Oliver Stone was lucky - he had the critical eye of a contemporary press to put him in perspective. Anonymous will stand uncontested (and No, Shakespeare in Love doesn’t help matters any). Who’d have thought that an offhand remark by one of your disinterested undergraduate professors would wind up the basis for an entire school of thought. The truth about Shakespeare may be never really known, but one thing’s for sure - this cobbled together collection of half-baked hunches won’t clear things up. As entertaining as it is, it just makes things worse.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.