It is unfair to criticize a film that attempts historical revisionism for having factual inaccuracies, but Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is like the Earl of Falsehood. Not only does the movie promote a controversial theory about the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, but it also jumbles the timeline and presents a completely different version of Elizabethan England. It was not enough to suggest that Shakespeare was not the true author of his plays, but it was also apparently a requirement to present him and his contemporaries as total buffoons.
Anonymous suggests that masterpieces Hamlet, Richard III, and Romeo and Juliet were not written by Stratfordian actor William Shakespeare, but by Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford. The primary argument is that Shakespeare was not educated or high class enough to be worthy of such beautiful verse. Even if there is evidence that backs up this claim (and if there is, Emmerich doesn’t show it) I still much prefer to believe that one does not have to be born into privilege to be capable of greatness.
In order to appreciate a film like Anonymous, one has to look past the overall theory that it promotes. Emmerich’s intentions are noble and for the most part he successfully shows how words, drama, and a well-told story have the power to move a society to action. It might be the most CGI-filled Elizabethan set film ever released; we should expect nothing less from the director who brought us 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. The minor characters are just as artificial as the digitally created set pieces, but the film is almost redeemed by a few particularly fantastic performances.
The film opens with one of many framing devices with veteran Shakespeare actor Derek Jacobi strolling out onto a bare stage to introduce the Oxford theory of Shakespeare’s plays. The action then flashDaes back to the 16th Century when authorities are engaged in a search for Shakespeare’s manuscripts. A brief chase ends in the torching of the Globe Theater and then the action flashes back another five, then twenty five years to introduce us to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and how he came to be the great author the film presents him as.
Growing up fascinated with Queen Elizabeth I, Edward was a poet from a young age. For the sake of lineage he was forced into a marriage with Anne Cecil (Helen Baxendale) and banned from playwriting by her puritanical father William (David Thewlis). Unable to suppress his urge to express himself with verse, Edward decides to use his plays to inform the public about the scandalous lives of the royals. He hires Ben Jonson (Sebastian Arnesto) to release the plays under his name, but is prevented when the greedy William Shakespeare (Rafe Spahl) decides to take the glory for himself. We see numerous events in the life of Edward de Vere that parallel famous moments from Shakespeare plays, like the murder of Polonius through a closet curtain and a hunchbacked leader who works against his own people.
Rhys Ifans paints a deeply moving portrait of a man who feels obligated to share his gift for verse despite the realization that he will never receive any recognition or glory. It’s a bizarre comparison, but Ifans’ performance as the Earl of Oxford can is similar to Christian Bale’s in The Dark Knight. Each man has to become the type of hero that their people need, even if it means sacrificing their own happiness. His depression has affected him deeply as we see him stoop low with the weight of a life unfulfilled.
Despite getting deeply insulted by Edward choosing him to be the front for his plays, Ben Jonson is respected enough by screenwriter John Orloff to get the only development of any playwright. Shakespeare is practically a cartoon character and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, played by Trystan Gravelle, is laughably shallow in a crude way. Vanessa Redgrave gets her turn to play an English Queen and she does so convincingly and assuredly.
The costume design from Anna Foerster is magnificent. The colors rarely stray from shades of gray, yet they still manage to pop when up against the dim scenery. Almost all of the sets were created with CGI, rather than constructed on a studio lot and they certainly feel like they came out of a computer. Emmerich can’t resist the urge to use helicopter shots to sweep over his digitally imagined world, but the effect only adds to the artificiality.
Therein lies the primary problem with Anonymous – that it feels too phony even for a piece of revisionist history. The brief bits of Shakespeare productions that we see are silly and make the Bard’s text seem uninteresting. This is in spite of solid line readings from veteran stage actors like Mark Ryland. The film was a years spanning passion project for Emmerich, which explains some of the over-direction. He needed to pull back on this film and remember to tell us a story, rather than inject it into our eyeballs.
Bottom Line: Anonymous should be called Artificial because on almost every level it feels phony.