Best known for his apocalyptic disaster and adventure movies, director Roland Emmerich has replaced explosions for dramatic fireworks in his 16th century passion project, Anonymous.
As the success of the The Da Vinci Code and subsequent film adaptation proved, everyone loves a good conspiracy theory. And Anonymous relates what is surely the ultimate conspiracy in literature: that the astonishing output of Shakespeare was, in fact, written by someone else.
This isn’t, of course, a new notion: since his rediscovery by the literari of the 18th and 19th century, various writers have called the attribution of Shakespeare’s works into question. Mark Twain was among the numerous high-profile figures who’ve asked the same thing: is it possible that Shakespeare, a man of relatively lowly origins, really wrote 38 enduring plays, and more than 150 poems?
The answer, according to Anonymous, is a resounding no. And far from presenting his Elizabethan drama as a mystery, as I’d expected, where various potential suspects would be brought before the jury, and gradually ruled out, Emmerich’s film instead gets straight to the point: the true author of Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo And Juliet was not Shakespeare, but a man of better breeding – Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans).
In an age when the church cracked down fiercely on writers of poetry and plays, which it regarded as the work of Beelzebub himself, De Vere is forced to write anonymously. And when the political (and as it turns out, autobiographical) elements of his plays prove too much for the more powerful rulers of the land, he has to find a writer who’ll assume authorship of his work.
Young, aspiring playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) is De Vere’s first port of call, but when he refuses to lay claim to the Earl’s work out of sheer artistic integrity (“It’ll offend the Muses!”), a series of events lead to one William Shakespeare taking the credit for his plays instead. In Anonymous’ take on history, Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is a drunken, licentious oaf who happens to ply a trade as an actor.
When De Vere’s latest play proves a hit with the grubby underclass who crowd into the London theatre, Shakespeare takes credit as the author, providing De Vere with a convenient smokescreen.
As the film grinds on, however, it’s revealed that De Vere’s past is as complicated as the plays he sneaks into theatres; he was once engaged in a brief yet passionate affair with Queen Elizabeth I (played by Joely Richardson in her younger years, and Vanessa Redgrave in her dotage), a tryst that ends with De Vere locked up in the Tower of London.
Anonymous, then, is a story of heightened drama, affairs, intrigue and lust for power. It’s also quite terrible. Its tone is all over the place, its course through history fragmented and confusing, its script often flat, and at times downright ridiculous.
Although boasting an eclectic and talented cast, each member appears to have their own interpretation of the script. Rhys Ifans treats his role of the quiet literary genius with deadly earnestness, and is actually very good. Rafe Spall plays Shakespeare as though he’s in a bawdy Elizabethan sex comedy. Sebastian Armesto carves his ham extra thick, and acts uncannily like one of the leads in this month’s The Three Musketeers. Vanessa Redgrave seems confused (and that’s before her character sinks into dementia), while Joely Richardson spends much of the film clenching her fists and screaming.
It’s worth mentioning, at this point, that the repeated cutting back and forth in time is, initially, quite confusing. Like John Madden’s Nazi hunting drama The Debt, Anonymous uses different actors for the same characters in flashback scenes. With Redgrave and Richardson, that’s no problem, since Queen Elizabeth’s such a distinctive looking character that, even if she were played by John Goodman, we’d recognise her in an instant. But when you cut to a different time period, where De Vere is played by the smouldering Jamie Campbell Bower instead of Rhys Ifans, it can take a few moments for the realisation that these two people are the same person to sink in.
At one point, Helen Baxendale walks into Rhys Ifans’ study and sweeps all the writing equipment off his desk. It took quite a while before I realised that Baxendale was also De Vere’s wife, Anne Cecil, who was played by Amy Kwolek only moments before. It’s brief flashes of bewilderment such as these that led me to wonder whether Shakespeare’s work had been incorrectly attributed because, 400 years ago, nobody could recognise each other from one week to the next.
As an evocation of the late 16th century, Anonymous is quite good. Emmerich liberally uses CG to extend the scope of his olde London sets. The bawdiness of Elizabethan theatre is captured effectively, and the brief moments where we get to see some of Shakespeare’s plays acted out border on brilliance (Mark Rylance is great in these bits, his Irish accent adding a marvelous earthiness to the Bard’s lines). But as a drama, Anonymous is a disaster; characters shout and rage without restraint, bellowing out lines that are often unintentionally side-splitting.
The script’s soap opera edge wouldn’t matter quite so much if the conspiracy theory at its heart were believably handled. As one of literature’s most enigmatic figures, the history of Shakespeare and his writing – if, indeed, they really are all his – should be an interesting one. But Anonymous’ depiction of the Bard as a braying idiot who couldn’t even write his own name simply doesn’t make sense. If Shakespeare really was the 16th century equivalent of Adam Sandler, why on Earth would anyone believe that he was capable of writing Hamlet or Macbeth?
There’s something mildly insulting, too, about the insinuation that, because Shakespeare was of humble birth – as is mentioned more than once, he was the son of an illiterate tradesman – there was simply no way he could have been educated enough to have written some of the most respected works in history. Maybe in a few hundred years, one of Roland Emmerich’s descendants will make a film suggesting that HG Wells’ novels were written by Queen Victoria, or that Prince Philip wrote every hit recorded by The Beatles. But all this is beside the point.
The real point is that Anonymous simply doesn’t work as a period drama. Its story wavers between absurdity and confusion. Its acting is all over the place – though Edward Hogg is fantastic as the hunchbacked, boo-hiss villain, Robert Cecil – and it feels considerably longer than its 130 minute duration.
History and theatre buffs may glean some sadistic enjoyment from picking factual holes in Anonymous’ bizarre tapestry, but for everyone else, I’d suggest a quiet night in with a beer and a dog-eared copy of Macbeth.