Directed By: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis
Tag line: "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?"
Trivia: Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play the older and younger versions of Queen Elizabeth respectively. In real-life they are mother and daughter
When you think of Roland Emmerich, the words “historical drama” don’t immediately pop into your head. And yet, this director of such big-budget disaster / sci-fi films as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 also turned out Anonymous, a 2011 drama / thriller set during the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, whose years on the throne coincided with the career of one William Shakespeare, a man considered by many to be the English language’s greatest writer.
But what if (as this movie’s tagline suggests) Shakespeare was a fraud? What if he didn’t write the sonnets or plays that have been attributed to him? What if he was a front for someone else, a man of noble birth whose rank and status demanded that he remain in the shadows, unable to take credit for his work?
It’s this theory that sets the stage for Anonymous, yet is just one of several stories told over the course of the movie.
Taking a page from Henry V, Anonymous opens with a modern-day setting: a theater in New York City. Arriving moments before the curtain goes up, Derek Jacobi rushes on stage to deliver the monologue that will set the tale in motion. From there, we’re whisked away to London, hundreds of years in the past. It’s a time of political unrest; Queen Elizabeth (played by Vanessa Redgrave, with Joely Richardson portraying a younger Elizabeth in flashbacks) has no legitimate heir. Her closest advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis), is pushing for the Queen to name Scotland’s King James her successor, while several noblemen, including the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), support the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), who many believe to be Elizabeth’s bastard son.
Though his father-in-law is William Cecil, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford, shows little interest in the turmoil that has shaken England to its core. Instead, he spends his days secretly writing plays, sonnets, and poems, much to the chagrin of his wife Anne (Helen Baxendale) and her Puritan family. Eager to share his works with the world, but knowing his name cannot be attached to them, de Vere approaches playwright / theater owner Benjamin Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), asking for his help in staging some of his plays, with the understanding that Jonson himself will take full credit for them. The night that the first play, Henry V, is performed, however, Jonson has second thoughts, and instead lists the author as “Anonymous”. Once the show is over, the crowd applauds wildly, calling for the writer to take a bow. Seizing the opportunity, an upstart actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), who is aware of Jonson’s arrangement but has no idea who the true author is, grabs the manuscript for Henry V and claims it as his own. The rest, as they say, is history.
Along with its political wranglings and artistic conspiracies, Anonymous delves into a few romantic scandals as well, chief among them an illicit affair that occurred years earlier between de Vere (played as a young man by James Campbell Bower) and the Queen herself, a coupling that led to the birth of a son, who, thanks to William Cecil, was immediately turned over to foster parents, with neither the Queen nor de Vere knowing the child’s new identity. With so much intrigue crammed into one movie, you might think that Anonymous spreads itself too thin, or is perhaps far too confusing for its own good. But I assure you that’s not the case. Never once during the film did I have trouble keeping up with things. In fact, each new wrinkle in its story proved just as fascinating as the last, and from start to finish, it held my undivided attention.
In addition to its riveting storylines, Anonymous looks fantastic, using a combination of sets, costumes, and CGI to bring this volatile era to life. I also enjoyed the sequences in which the plays themselves were staged (the scene in Henry V where the King addresses his troops before battle was both inspirational and moving), and across the board, the performances were exceptional (the standouts being Redgrave’s portrayal of the aging Queen and Rafe Spall as the oafish and somewhat vulgar Shakespeare).
Personally, I don’t buy into the theory that William Shakespeare was a fraud, though I admit it was fun to at least entertain that possibility for a few hours. It’s not often you use the word “fun” when describing a period piece like Anonymous.
But then, you don’t usually see one directed by Roland Emmerich, either.