A political thriller advancing the theory that it was in fact Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford who penned Shakespeare’s plays; set against the backdrop of the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, and the Essex Rebellion against her.
Roland Emmerich is best known for directing blockbusters about the end of the world as we know it; INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) et al. His movies are popcorn entertainment that are on a Michael Bay-esque scale but slightly less bombastic. ANONYMOUS is an obvious gear change for Emmerich.
The engine for this tale is the notion that the actor and glove-maker’s son known, as William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, but they were actually the work of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (Ifans).
A modicum of Wikipedia research reveals that this idea is the fashionable anti-Shakespeare conspiracy theory of our day. Up until the 1920s, it was proposed that Francis Bacon wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets and probably grocery lists.
These theories thrive owing to the absence of detail in the biography of Shakespeare. Baconians and Oxfordians also believe that only someone of high birth could properly appreciate the inner workings of the Elizabethan court and be able to recreate them in such dramatic detail, but would also have to disguise their involvement in the socially unacceptable world of theatre. The highborn claim doesn’t explain how Shakespeare captured so many truths about the human condition without also living all the other lives of his age. Add to this the inconvenient fact that The Earl of Oxford died a decade before the last plays were released and you have to really want it to invest in this alternative history. Luckily for its proponents, a conspiracy theory doesn’t have to explain everything, it just has to cast doubt on the accepted facts.
Viewed strictly as a yarn rather than a piece of advocacy for a point of view, ANONYMOUS is an entertaining couple of hours spent in a beautifully visualised world. Everything is ravishingly shot and lit. The Elizabethan era was tops for fashion if you were one of the top people. Much of the film was shot in German locations using lashings of computer-generated imagery. The muck of the streets, the atmosphere of The Rose and The Globe theatres and the opulence of the Royal houses are all convincingly rendered.
The cast is on a par with the high production values. Rafe Spall is excellent as the rather ambitious but illiterate actor Shakespeare. Rhys Ifans is very strong as The Earl of Oxford. However it was Vanessa Redgrave who stole the show for me. She plays the older Queen Elizabeth (her daughter Joely Richardson plays the young Queen) and creates a memorable version of this much-portrayed historical figure. There is something touching and unpredictable about the ageing, frightened and willful monarch that Redgrave gives us.
There is much political intrigue on offer here and fans of television’s THE TUDORS could enjoy some of these machinations, although in comparison to that racy TV series this movie is relatively chaste and pants-on. The intrigue also means a good deal of expository dialogue about unseen armies and the schemes of Lord This and the Duke of That, so audience members have to have their wits about them to follow the intricacies of the plot.
The plot is absolutely preposterous, but perversely enjoyable if the history and conspiracy theory don’t concern you. I am not overly impressed by the concept that Oxford the toff was the “soul of the age” and Will Shakespeare was some talentless amoral chav. Interestingly, I found The Earl of Oxford a somewhat compromised figure, so I left less persuaded about the ‘real Shaskespeare’ than when the movie began. Writer John Orloff is quoted as saying ANONYMOUS is “not a documentary”. Mind you, I am not 100% certain he is the author of the screenplay and am researching my own theory that it’s actually the work of Australian bush poet, the late Banjo Patterson.
ANONYMOUS opens in Australia on Thursday 2nd November. It runs 130 minutes. I rated it 3/5.