Speculating on whether Shakespeare actually penned the plays for which he is justifiably famous is the academic equivalent of wondering if Elvis is still alive. Famous people aren’t allowed to simply expire—they must be resurrected via silly conspiracy theories concerning their life, their death and the veracity of both. It doesn’t matter if the figures are historical (Abraham Lincoln, Jack the Ripper) or pop cultural (Jim Morrison, Tupac Shakur): The unwashed masses will keep them alive with talk of murder, scandal, cover-up and conspiracy. (Michael Jackson, shake hands with Marilyn Monroe.) Very often, these conspiracies involve some preposterous leaps of logic—up to and including alien intervention.
While I have yet to hear a theory about the authorship of Shakespeare’s work that involves UFOs, I have heard all manner of ideas regarding the “true” composer of Romeo and Juliet. Was it Francis Bacon? Christopher Marlowe? Queen Elizabeth I? The 17th Earl of Oxford? Anonymous, the self-described “controversial” new period drama, settles on the last one.
Oddly enough, for a movie ostensibly about Shakespeare, the Bard himself plays only a minor part in the proceedings. Our main character is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played here by Rhys Ifans). Eddie is a well-to-do orphan adopted by scheming William Cecil (David Thewlis), the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). The young earl (played in flashback by Jamie Campbell Bower from Starz’ short-lived “Camelot” series) is drawn to the arts—a pastime the puritanical Brits frown upon.
Decades later, unhappily married to Cecil’s daughter, the earl is still seeking an outlet for his creative passions. He thinks he’s found one in satyrical playwright / theater owner Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto). Jonson agrees to mount some of the Earl’s anonymous plays, but—being a known writer himself—he balks at claiming ownership. That sticky wicket is solved, though, when Jonson’s chief actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), steps to the fore and opportunistically declares himself the genius behind the words.
Shakespeare is here portrayed as an ill-spoke, fame-whoring clod who can’t even write his own name. He’s little more than a patsy in a much larger game—one that mostly involves de Vere, the queen and her manipulative advisor. In order to come up with a reason why Shakespeare would have faked authorship of his plays, one must concoct a complicated conspiracy theory. Anonymous serves up a doozy. According to the screenplay by John Orloff (who gave us Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole), the 17th Earl of Oxford was a staunch loyalist to the queen (also, one of her many lovers). All of the plays he wrote were heavily veiled rallying cries for the people of England to rise up against impending Scottish rule and support the true Tudor bloodline. Though subtle, these subliminal messages were meant to be instantly absorbed by the theatergoing hoi polloi of London and promptly acted upon. Catch a matinee of As You Like It, plot the overthrow of King James. Makes sense.
It’s a far-fetched theory. One that makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. In one scene, for example, a mob of theater patrons is so inflamed with antihunchback sentiment by Shakespeare’s new epic Richard III that it storms the Tower of London, demanding the removal of the queen’s poor-postured advisor, Robert Cecil (the even more scheming son of William and the stepbrother/archenemy of Edward de Vere). I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that never happened.
When it’s concentrating on the zesty stagecraft and audience-affecting antics of a “Shakespeare” play, Anonymous captures the true power of art. However, the heavily politicized story contained in the film races rapidly forward in time, occasionally popping backward for a series of secret-spilling flashbacks. More characters are piled on. More storylines involving the French and Scottish aristocracy are added. It’s a lot to follow. As usual for this type of film, Anglophiles will be among the most entertained. Me, I’ve got better things to do than memorize the names of dead Brits, and I found myself occasionally adrift in a sea of “Earl of This” and “Baron of That.”
Put on the shelf next to such period romps as Amadeus or Shakespeare in Love, Anonymous looks plenty lavish. The streets of London are appropriately muddy and the ruffled collars of the rich are appropriately sweat-stained. Several epic CGI shots of the London skyline and a dazzling re-creation of the famous Globe Theatre lend the film an expensive, expansive look. This clearly isn’t your average, break-out-the-costume-trunk-at-the-BBC biopic.
Indeed not, as the man behind the camera happens to be one Roland Emmerich. Like a sinner who converts to Christianity on his deathbed, director/producer Emmerich has cannily switched from shameless, money-grubbing Hollywood blockbusters (Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, 2012) to a shameless, Oscar-baiting costume drama. To his credit, Emmerich doesn’t try to work in too many explosion-filled sequences, monstrous tidal waves or alien invasions. His mise en scène here feels traditional and quite authentic. He’s smart enough to surround himself with top-shelf actors (the melancholy Ifans and the mercurial Redgrave are particularly notable). Plus, the film will probably land an Oscar for costume design. Still, there’s something slightly arch in the preposterous theories advanced here—as if all involved think they’ve stumbled across the next Da Vinci Code. If you can look at Anonymous as a grand, soap opera-ish “what if?” lark, it works. As a serious, Oxfordian examination of literary history ... well, let’s just say it’s hard to entertain any history lesson from the dude who gave us 10,000 BC.