“This play has been declared seditious,” announces a uniformed officer at the start of Anonymous. He’s breaking up the performance of a Ben Jonson play, and as actors and audience members scatter under threat of arrest and worse, one viewer looks especially dismayed, though not distraught. It’s Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), 17th Earl of Oxford, not only affronted that his evening’s entertainment is dispatched, but also that the crown has such imperious will and power to close down art on a whim.
Edward hatches a scheme that day, that he will make use of art to fight back, specifically, to rouse the crowd—largely rabble, but maybe some thinking men as well—to fight back against their oppressors. In Edward’s case, the fight has a particular end in mind, to replace the current heirless and ragingly aging royal, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) with another, his friend the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid). Though Edward’s notion is hardly new, in Roland Emmerich’s version of historical fiction, he’s mightily able to make it happen.
For one thing, Edward has a veritable treasure trove of plays, gathering the slightest dust, in shelves on his study. He’s got comedies and tragedies, perfectly written out in longhand and just waiting to be packed off to the theater where a crew of players might devour and perform them. The plays bear titles like Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar, and they’re stashed away because his wife, Anne (Helen Baxendale), or more precisely her father William Cecil (David Thewlis), is determined that he be a proper earl, that is, not visibly working and certainly not writing.
Thus Edward determines not only to thwart his father-in-law but also to show his manhood by sending his plays to the theater company to be performed. His courier and confidant is that same Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) whose production was shut down and so has something like an interest in seeing the regime changed. Jonson also becomes something of a fan boy, so devoted to the wondrousness of Edward’s poetry that he keeps the secret, while also wrestling with his own jealousy (wanting also to be the greatest writer of all time).
While all of this plot is enough, Anonymous piles on: not only must Edward be a daunting man with his pen, but also with his “pen,” that is, he beds the queen, in flashbacks where he’s played by Jamie Campbell Bower and she by Joely Richardson. Here she’s smitten by his gift for verse, illustrated in a scene where she tosses him out in a pique, but is won back over as he mutters fabulous poetry while approaching her: we see his naked back and her seated, gazing up at his mouth but eventually facing his penis, which she proceeds to adore.
The movie is in love as well, with this concept of the manly author, and to make that clear, it makes Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), the rube who ends up taking credit for Anonymous’ plays, so utterly boorish that he literally can’t write his own name. While academics have long made the debate over the plays’ authorship into a class battle, sometimes sounding like those waged on cable news (on one side: Shakespeare could never have written so well because he was poor and uneducated; on the other: such belief shows the speaker’s class prejudice), this movie transforms it into a simplistic throw-down. Will is such an idiot, so full of himself and (yes) willfully ignorant that he’s easy to disdain as a cheat and a social climber. Edward, meanwhile, gets the benefits of many doubts, being the actual bard and also, despite his own marriage for money and power, a proto-populist and man of the so-called people, represented here as a rowdy mob just waiting to be moved hither and yon.
As Edward’s plays do indeed move everyone, every performance generating the 16th century equivalent of buzz, they find opposition in powers that be, namely the queen’s conniving Secretary, William Cecil (who, historically, also pursued the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots) and his disturbed and disturbing hunchback son Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg). These two conspire to preserve their own access to the throne, wanting to emplace their own next-in-line, James VI of Scotland (James Clyde), and also wanting especially to punish Edward, whom William Cecil took in and raised as a boy. (Early scenes build the case in the most banal terms possible: the adult is harsh and imperious, the adopted child sensitive and endearing… and Robert is apparently a product and embodiment of his father’s abuse.)
On the surface, the Cecils’ reasoning is class-based: Edward’s not been born to the station he’s now got, and he’s turned ungrateful, resentful, and condescending toward them. As the plot twists accumulate, their concern about bloodlines and machinations to control the world are transformed into something yuckier, but Anonymous keeps focused on its version of Edward’s essential greatness. He’s a real man, and those who seek to contain, manipulate or otherwise undo him are not. Anonymous premises his manhood at least partly on his poetry, but in so doing, loses sight of its allusions and intrigues, and instead—and rather like young Elizabeth—falls in love with its most obvious sensations.