A film review by Craig J. Koban November 10, 2011


2011, PG-13, 130 mins.


Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford: Rhys Ifans / Queen Elizabeth I: Vanessa Redgrave / Young Elizabeth I: Joely Richardson / William Shakespeare: Rafe Spall / Earl of Essex: Sam Reid / William Cecil: David Thewlis

Directed by Roland Emmerich / Written by John Orloff

William Shakespeare – as if you needed an introduction - was an English poet and playwright that is chiefly regarded as the greatest and most studied writer in the English language.  His catalogue of work hardly needs any embellishment: 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems as well as several others; his plays alone have been the most performed in human history. 

Oh yeah…he was a fraud.  A hustler.  A conman.  A buffoon.  An uncultured loser.  

That’s, of course, the Shakespeare according to the man who made GODZILLA, INDEPENDENCE DAY, 2012 and 10,000 YEARS B.C.. 

Described by its director as one his life long passion projects, the German-born Roland Emmerich’s ANONYMOUS pains to tell viewers an alternative view of the most long standing legacy of the pre-eminent writer of the late 15th and early 16th Centuries.  In his opinion, Shakespeare was not the writer of "his" body of work, nor did he even possess any modicum of skills required to pull off such a noteworthy achievement.  Instead, the film sort of proudly boasts that the most famous resident of Stratford-upon-Avon was hardly the type of person that could be attributed as the writer of such a mythic canon of plays and poems.  He was, after all, the son of an illiterate, a traveling actor in a profession not held in high esteem at the time, and maintained no connections with royalty at all.  It seems that his whole life – from his very humble and uneducated beginnings  - was incongruent with the man that has been considered a poetic genius for hundreds of years.  He simply lacked the schooling, the upper class/noble sensibilities, and the know-how to write such work.  

He must have been a grade-A phony...right? 

That’s precisely what the self described Anti-Stradfordians believe as well as Emmerich: that Shakespeare was not the author of his works, but rather was put in place as the author in order to shield the public from the real author.  Who wrote Shakespeare’s work, then?  Alternatives have been postulated as far ranging as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.  These conspiracy theorists are very quick to point out that there is no tangible supporting evidence to support Shakespeare as the real figure behind all of those iconic plays and sonnets.  Funny, but there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to support that someone else wrote them either.  It’s convenient what these people will leave out on a whim. 

Emmerich’s film – written by (or…was it…?) the gifted John Orloff of A MIGHTY HEART– makes a claim that it was de Vere that was the figure responsible for creating the plays that have been scrutinized for 400-plus years.  Interestingly, the film does not open in the past, but in the present with a performer (Derek Jacobi) taking to a Manhattan stage to begin a monologue on why Shakespeare was the ultimate swindler.  We are then whisked back four centuries to the declining years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and are introduced to de Vere (Rhys Ifans) as a persona that had every quality required to be a man that wrote what we now regard as the works of Shakespeare: he had a noble upbringing, a most distinguished educational career in various disciplines and languages, had a cozy relationship (make that extra-cozy relationship…more on that later) with the Crown, and simply had the authority to write as Shakespeare allegedly did.  Here’s de Vere's problem: a lust and passion for all things theatrical and literary was shunned by the royals, which would make his desire to be a public playwright a political and social death sentence. 



He has a plan: he chooses a young and up-and-coming playwright, Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) to step in an assume authorship for his work, but Johnson gets cold feet.  In his place steps an actor, Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) who joyously has no issues with being a counterfeit playwright that will get basked in adulation and acclaim.  While this is all occurring we have another story thread that involves the end of Elizabeth's reign and the persons in line to the throne.  The candidates include James VI of Scotland, who is the fav of Elizabeth's advisors, William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg).  Then there is the black sheep of Elizabeth’s family, her illegitimate son, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) who shares an intimate tie with de Vere.   

ANONYMOUS is a stupendous looking period film (if I could call it that; perhaps faux-period film would suffice?).  It’s amazing to even think that the film was mostly shot on German soundstages using hi-def digital cameras, but Emmerich and cinematographer, Anna J. Foerster, ground the film in an invitingly warmed hued, but grungy, muddy, dimly candle lit, and penetratingly credible palette through and through.  You gain a startling sense of the times of London and the Globe theatre, which is anything but lush and picturesque at times.  More often than not, this film’s London is a metropolis of poverty and famine.  ANONYMOUS is a triumph of state of the art production design and fakery and considering Emmerich’s past films - which have largely been sci-fi, fantasy, prehistory, or disaster related - ANONYMOUS is a nice visual change of pace. 

Yet, too much of ANONYMOUS is just ape shit crazy and pure nonsensical hooey as it parades around from one Oliver Stone-ian conspiratorial extreme to the next.  There’s nothing wrong with this film’s choice of outlook as to the authorship-reliability of The Bard (however ass-backward wrong it is), but it takes itself so mind-numbingly serious at times that it can’t even acknowledge its own preposterous camp value.  ANONYMOUS could have found more secure footing if it balanced its inherent silliness with its solemnity, but it opts largely for the latter extreme, with oftentimes unintentional funny results.  Emmerich aims for a sprawling and portentous epic here, but with its infectious – but laughable and ludicrous – themes of violence, betrayal, sex, and even incest, the film feels more like a daytime soap opera.   

Consider this: There’s the relationship between the young de Vere and the young Elizabeth (played well by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely) that shows the monarch as a sex starved deviant that had three illegitimate sons, one being conceived under more…icky circumstances.  Spall’s portrayal of Shakespeare is even more amusingly salacious.  The man here has no wit, no social skills, no level of even modest verbosity, and not a hint of genius about him at all.  He’s a slimy, bumbling, and disreputable moron who, at times, can barely articulate his thoughts into two or three words at a time.  He was just a man of pure luck that happened to be in the right place and time to be set up as an impostor to end all impostors.  Perhaps even more giggle inducing is the notion that de Vere wrote A Midsummer’s Night Dream when he was just a young teen and that he later writes Richard III and Henry V to, more or less, serve as propaganda pieces to incite rebellion and revolution.  Sure.  Yup.  Uh-huh. 

The performances are inconsistent as well.  However, I giddily reviled at both Redgrave's portrayals of the horny-as-hell and decidedly non-chaste Elizabeth at two different points in her life (they seem to be having a ball here) and I really appreciated Ifans’ skills at fleshy out an extraordinarily tricky role as de Vere.  He neither overplays nor underplays him, which allows for him to come off as a much more credible presence in the film.  The rest of the performances, however, can’t seem to decide if they should be serious or outlandish; they’re all on a pendulum of going from one extreme to the next, which often results in many audience members rolling their eyes with spite. 

I guess that’s the main problem with ANONYMOUS: it could have been better appreciated as deliciously lurid and sinfully campy anti-Stratfordism revisionist tale that could have really harnessed its distinctly sordid storyline with a more offbeat tone.   Yet, Emmerich makes ANONYMOUS so achingly and methodically somber that you laugh at its inherent ridiculous extremes and not with them.  The film looks sensational, has a few key performances that are perhaps too thanklessly good for their own worth here, and has ample gumption for at least proposing an alternate view of history’s most revered dramatist.  It’s undoing, though, is that it seems like Emmerich wants us to actually believe that his crazy pseudo-historical tale of Shakespeare is true.  Now that’s as hard to swallow as believing that Shakespeare was a village idiot.   

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