Anonymous (United Kingdom/Germany, 2011)

October 30, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Anonymous Poster

Those who question the authorship of Shakespeare's plays are like Climate Change deniers - despite being in a minority, they are tenacious and passionate. Though a surfeit of facts are against them, they are able to make some good points that the opposition has difficulty countering or debunking. From my perspective, it's a matter of little concern whether the canon we identify with William Shakespeare was scribed by the actor-turned-playwright from Stratford or whether the author was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. What is important is that the plays exist and they are among the best-written in the history of the English language. Whoever wrote them - Shakespeare, de Vere, or someone else - has been dead for 400 years. He's not going to care one way or the other.

Anonymous advances the cause of so-called "Oxfordianism" but chooses the most salacious variation, amplifying the sex, violence, and betrayal to make for a more entertaining motion picture. This also has the intended effect of transforming the movie's narrative into a tragedy with Shakespearean overtones. For the most part, Anonymous functions as a cross between Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love, with all the political machinations, skullduggery, and opportunism one expects from such a story. Ultimately, the screenplay is as concerned about the end of Elizabeth's reign and the succession as it is about how Shakespeare became famous by publishing another man's plays. File this one in the category of entertaining historical fiction. There are facts here, but one must possess more than a passing familiarity with history to be able to spot them.

Perhaps surprisingly, Anonymous opens in the present day, with narrator Derek Jacobi taking the stage to provide a quick primer on the tenets of Oxfordianism. We are then thrown back more than four centuries to the waning years of Queen Elizabeth's court. Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), who is unable to publish plays under his own name because such an avocation is unworthy of an Earl, has chosen playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) to be his stand-in. However, when Johnson waffles, one of his actors, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), steps into the breach. Meanwhile, as Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) approaches the end, various candidates for the next king of England come to light. The favorite is James VI, the King of Scotland. He is favored by Elizabeth's closest advisors, William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son, Robert (Edward Hogg). The other main contender is one of Elizabeth's illegitimate sons, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), a hothead who is supported by de Vere and several other influential nobles.

Two key characters are represented counter to their popular images. Shakespeare, normally thought of as scholarly and erudite, is developed as an unprincipled schemer who is in the right place at the right time and is able to pull off the charade despite the fact that he's an illiterate moron. Elizabeth, often viewed as chaste and virginal, is hot-blooded and sexual, having borne at least three illegitimate sons and having a dark secret concerning one of them. This portrayal of Elizabeth is at variance with the ones of Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.

The production design is superb, with director Roland Emmerich and his crew having effectively transformed a soundstage into Elizabethan England. The re-creations of The Globe and The Rose theaters are especially well-done. They provide a sense unlike that of any other movie of what it was like to see a play in these settings. Anonymous treats us to a highlight reel of Shakespeare's greatest hits, from the witches in MacBeth to "Et tu, Brute" in Julius Caesar to the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet. Despite being best known for his special effects-laden, lobotomy-required-for-enjoyment blockbusters like Independence Day, Godzilla, and 2012, Emmerich seems entirely at home in this smarter, more low-key setting. Anonymous is well-paced and never threatens to bore or become too scholarly.

The cast, which is devoid of splashy Hollywood stars, features Rhys Ifans in the lead role. Ifans, known primarily for his portrayal of fatuous and comedic characters, might seem an odd choice for what is a purely dramatic part, but this gives him an opportunity to display his range. He's very good and never seems out of his depth. Vanessa Redgrave offers a regal portrayal of the fading queen, who maintains an aura of quiet authority even as her physical and mental capabilities decline. Redgrave's daughter, Joely Richardson, plays a younger version of the queen during flashbacks. The rest of the cast is comprised of character actors such as David Thewlis and Rafe Spall.

Anonymous is a problematic movie to market and sell. The material will play better to those with a love of Shakespeare and an understanding of his era, but the film has been designed with a general audience in mind. As a result, this becomes an art house production playing in multiplexes, which is not ideal for finding the right viewership - at least until it reaches home video. Anonymous is good enough to be seen in a theater - in fact, the spectacular production design will lose something on the small screen. The film's thesis - that de Vere not Shakespeare created the English language's most beloved plays - may be shaky when examined on a purely factual basis but those who believe the movie will have no doubts.

Anonymous (United Kingdom/Germany, 2011)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2011-10-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1