Film Review – Anonymous

When the tagline of your film is “Was Shakespeare a fraud?,” you’re immediately courting controversy. Then, when your film proposes the idea that someone besides Shakespeare really wrote all his plays, and the man himself was simply an opportunistic actor who took advantage of a situation, you immediately put the reviewers of your film in a precarious position. One that teeters between critiquing the film in its challenging, historical context, and simply as the film itself, set apart from its accusations and presuppositions—which is exactly what writer John Orloff and director Roland Emmerich have done with Anonymous. By the time the film hits theaters and this review is published, there will already be a bevy of articles debating this very “what if?,” most of them doing their best to discredit any legitimacy the film may hold on its claim.

As if to preemptively illustrate this very point, the filmmakers have attempted a clever storytelling device that begins the film in the modern day, as actor Derek Jacobi stands before an auditorium full of people and begins to tell “the real story of Shakespeare.” As he does, an actor dressed in Elizabethan era clothing walks across the stage, indicating that Jacobi’s lecture will be accompanied by theatrical reenactments. The camera pans and follows the actor, Sebastian Armesto, in the role of playwright Ben Jonson; we then transcend time and are deported back to 1613 on the night of the burning of the Globe Theatre in London. Using a modern day context to connect the past to the present, Emmerich attempts throughout the film’s 130-minute running time to continuously draw parallels from the audience’s connections to storytelling in general. As audiences watch plays performed, they become outwardly affected by it, shouting their approval and disapproval, getting emotional in all the ways a story works to provide.

The central thread of the story focuses on Ben Jonson and his involvement in what is purported to be the biggest literary cover-up in perhaps all of history. Jonson, a not very successful playwright, catches the attention of one aristocrat, the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans). In secret, de Vere meets with Jonson and proposes a business arrangement. It turns out that de Vere is secretly a writer, and has been, for political reasons, barred from publishing the plays he’s written in his own name. That’s where Jonson comes in; de Vere needs him to publish his plays in Jonson’s name. Through a series of narrative jumps back in forth in time, we are led to a moment of opportunity, where an actor by the name of William Shakespeare publicly claims credit for the just-performed play by de Vere, one Henry V. This somehow forces the hand of de Vere to use Shakespeare instead of Jonson as his pseudonym.

Most of Anonymous is deeply embroiled in the political scandals at heart of the Shakespearean controversy—namely, a secret and possibly incestuous relationship involving Queen Elizabeth (played by both Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson), which leads to inspiring de Vere to write plays that will stoke the rebellious passions of the people and lead to an uprising historically known as the Essex Rebellion. Historical accuracies and claims aside, Anonymous‘s weakest aspect comes from its need to overcomplicate the political machinations behind the controversy. Bogging down the otherwise hypertensive pacing, the character drama on display plays out more like an extended episode of the television show The Tudors than it does a two-hour film billed as a political thriller. Fortunately, during these long and sometimes overwrought moments, we have the talents of Rhys Ifans and David Thewlis (who plays William Cecil, counsel to the Queen). Ifans’s command of identity is just this side of annoying arrogance, instead providing a confidence that feels comfortable to put stock in. It is because of Ifans’s ability to jostle these character traits in a fine manner that by the end of the film he almost makes the traditionalist in us want to throw caution to historical winds and say, yes you really did write all those plays. Thewlis gives the kind of performance that’s upheld his career since Mike Leigh’s Naked, frustrating to the point of near madness. That is to say, he does such a fine job of acting that his characters are the ones that agitate, to appropriate affect.

Director Roland Emmerich, who’s best known for his over-bloated, end of the world, sci-fi blockbusters such as Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and Stargate, to name a few, has claimed this film as more of a passion project for himself. Though the film is more grounded in character drama and a far more down-scaled perspective on narrative, that doesn’t mean Emmerich has abandoned his flair for the sensationalism of spectacle. Instead, he’s just shifted the focus from action sequences to Shakespeare’s greatest hits. The film’s most exciting moments, besides its eventual rebellion-driven conclusion, are the first productions of the most famous scenes of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Everything from “To be or not to be…” to “Et tu, Brute” is captured in a manner meant to be just as exciting as any gun battle or flight from disaster. Emmerich’s film achieves its most intelligent commentary in these sequences, not from attempting to lay claim on who was really whom, but, when it works, drawing those aforementioned parallels in audience connectivity to storytelling, or entertainment. As the actors in the 1600s perform these famous moments of theater, we are shown the audience’s insatiable desire to connect. An attempt on the filmmaker’s part to remind us of the beginning where a modern-day audience is about to be told the story we are watching, aiming to arise in us the same kind of connective emotion, which works simply by challenging the validity of one of society’s most revered writers.

As for Shakespeare himself, he gets the short end of the stick, as the saying goes. Portrayed by actor Rafe Spall as drunk, illiterate, and underhanded, this Shakespeare is sure to cause seething rage in even the most casual of fans. To Spall’s credit, he does a great job of playing the character so as to help further the postulation of the film’s premise. However, Shakespeare’s actual onscreen time is relatively small in comparison to Jonson’s, whose character development against the backdrop of this controversy is a competing theme along with that of the plight of de Vere, which ultimately serves to overburden the film, and, coupled with the underpinnings of the Essex Rebellion, leads to a rather strenuous final act. As we approach what feels to be a climax, it is only pushed further away to open up room for the overlapping narratives of the characters’ competing plotlines. Perhaps if stripped down a bit, the film wouldn’t feel so arduous. Addressing the inherent controversy in the film and whether or not it lays any creditable claims is best left to actual historians than this simple film reviewer, but based on the bit of knowledge that makes for deductive reasoning, it is probably best to take the movie’s historical claims on the same basis it asks you to believe in it, with a dubiously skeptical eye.

Final Grade: B-


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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