Anonymous, which suggests Edward De Vere as the author of the Shakespeare corpus instead of Shakespeare himself, is one of the most marvelous works of imaginative fantasy in a long while. That it is entirely wishful thinking does nothing to detract from the enjoyment to be gotten from the film.
Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford – genius, mastermind, passionate, intemperate. He grew up among the greatest minds of his age, received an education worthy of a king, and had vast resources of intellectual genius left over. There is a wonderful moment in the film when, as a young man, De Vere is introduced to his language tutors, whom he greets in Latin, Greek, French and German, already clearly a master of them. But De Vere has one flaw – he cannot help but write; poems, plays, stories, the muses come. Such a thing is scandalous for a member of the royalty, not to mention the strong views of the Puritan faction that theatre and fiction is of the devil. When De Vere gets wind that the Catholic James of Scotland is positioning to take the throne after the death of Elizabeth I, he decides to wage a war for the fate of his Kingdom, not with swords and blood, but with words.
Thus the Shakespeare corpus is born. De Vere approaches Ben Jonson to take credit for the plays and perform them, but Jonson is uncomfortable with the arrangement. Unlearned and crass actor Will Shakespeare is quick to snatch up this mantle and the money that goes along with it. What follows is a marvelous and compelling tale of historical revisionism of betrayal and political wrangling, with the fate all Britain in the balance.
The film is certainly worthy of its material and holds barely a dull moment. The script is everything you would want from a story of this period, and is expertly constructed to interweave various points in De Vere’s life with great moments in the Shakespeare plays, running alongside the actual story in which De Vere has Jonson and Shakespeare stage his works. It is very carefully and deliberately constructed, so much so that more details and meaning can be gotten out of it on subsequent viewings. Anonymous is by far one of the best cinematic works by director Roland Emmerich, whose other films include Stargate, Independence Day, and 10,000 B.C. So far as Emmerich’s works are concerned, Stargate and Anonymous stand at the top as significantly superior. I might even be tempted to say that Anonymous is a bit better than Stargate if it weren’t patently unfair to judge between two starkly different genres.
The performances are generally good, with Rhys Ifans standing out starkly in his frequently charismatic role as Edward De Vere. Rafe Spall’s performance as Will Shakespeare is entertaining for its rambunctious embrace of Shakespeare-as-fool. David Thewlis (whom most will know as Remus Lupin of Harry Potter fame) as William Cecil was marvelous as usual. And Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth was as compelling as anything she’s done. Otherwise the performances were standard for such a film. The cinematography was fine, the production design extraordinary, and the score well-suited to its content.
Yet for all of this, Anonymous remains a piece of historical fantasy and conjecture, playing fast and loose with the facts. It plays fast and loose with the Oxfordian theory it argues for, in point of fact, happily tossing established knowledge about Queen Elizabeth and the period to the wind in order to suit drama and thesis. It remains, however, a compelling tale well-told, a worthy political thriller which can be easily enjoyed, if you can get yourself past the controversy.
Here is a clip from the film of De Vere speaking with Ben Jonson