Release Date: October 28, 2011
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: John Orloff
Stars: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Most of us have spent our lives hearing William Shakespeare discussed in reverent, hushed tones by our high school English teachers. As we read his plays in the classroom, we heard teachers gush about his genius – what a complex and brilliant mind he must have had to weave such beautiful prose and poetry. So seeing the William Shakespeare (played by Rafe Spall) presented in Anonymous – a bumbling, lecherous, illiterate drunk – is a bit of a shock to the system.
Anonymous makes the case that William Shakespeare never actually wrote anything. (In Anonymous’ version of the story, Shakespeare, a stage actor, is literate enough to read his lines, but doesn’t know how to write.) The film argues that the real author of all of Shakespeare’s works was the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans). De Vere, the film explains, had political reasons for not putting his name on his work, so he went to the playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) and asked him to be his stand in. Johnson wanted no part of the Earl of Oxford’s scheme, but his friend Will Shakespeare, who Johnson confided in over drinks at the pub, was more that happy to step in and take all the credit (presumably so he could use the money to fund his beer and wench binges).
While it’s a radical and unfounded claim, ultimately I’m not very concerned with the authenticity of the story. There are plenty of great films that distort or outright change historical events in order to tell a good tale (Amadeus, Gladiator and Braveheart instantly come to mind). As long as you entertain the audience, the facts don’t really matter. Unfortunately, Anonymous just isn’t a good enough film to get away with its outlandish assertion.
You would hope that anyone writing a film attacking William Shakespeare’s legacy would be capable of doing so in an eloquent fashion. Unfortunately, John Orloff’s script is overly complex, turning the film into a muddled and at times quite difficult to follow mess.
For some reason, Orloff makes the decision to start the film in modern times with a narrator on stage explaining the film’s premise to a theater audience. Then it flashes back to the end of the film’s story, giving us a cliffhanger involving Ben Johnson being seized and questioned by Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), who also burns down Johnson’s theater for good measure. From there, it skips back six years to show us how we ended up at that point. But from then on, it routinely skips back in time even further to show us various points in de Vere’s life. So often times you are watching a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, which is just ridiculous.
We learn that a younger de Vere (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) had an affair with Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), using his words to seduce her. The older de Vere, with Shakespeare as his front, attempts to use his words once again to influence a dying Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). De Vere wants Elizabeth’s bastard, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) to take over the throne upon her death. But Robert Cecil and his father, who have the Queen’s ear, want James I of Scotland to take her place, since they know James will be loyal to them.
Most of the film centers around this struggle for power. The story skips back and forth between Elizabeth’s last days and de Vere’s youth. All of it ties into Shakespeare’s plays. At times there are events that happen in de Vere’s life which later show up in his work – such as him stabbing an intruder hiding behind a curtain in his room, which later ends up in Hamlet, or his affair with Elizabeth serving as inspiration for Romeo and Juliet. Other times, de Vere uses the plays to influence the common people by making thinly-veiled political statements, using the characters as stand-ins for real people.
Some of these moments work better than others. De Vere’s affair with the Queen is fairly compelling, as are the more dramatic scenes involving people being killed or seized. But the film feels overly long and needless complex. Worst of all, the ending, which includes another shocking revelation about de Vere, is quite lackluster and maudlin.
The best scenes are the ones where Shakespeare’s plays are actually being performed. The actors hired to recreate the original stage performances are quite good and it’s fun to see the audience get really excited about the material. Unsurprisingly, they chose the most well-known scenes from his plays to show you, but it works (since those moments are Shakespeare’s most famous for a reason).
I have to admit that I did also enjoy the film’s presentation of Bizarro Shakespeare. Watching The Bard use lines from Romeo and Juliet to try to pick up a barmaid or blowing his hush money from de Vere on booze is highly entertaining. Anyone who didn’t enjoy those long, gushing lessons about Shakespeare in high school will probably get a kick out of this version of the man. I actually wish they had spent more time exploring Shakepeare’s life as a fraud, but unfortunately he gets very little screen time in the film.
Overall, the film just doesn’t work very well. It gives us some enjoyable moments and offers up a different (though highly disputed) take on Shakespeare’s life, but it’s overly long and complex storyline ultimately falls flat. It may be worth watching if you are particularly interested in The Bard’s works or the time period itself, but when watching it it’s crucial that you keep one important thing in mind: it ain’t Shakespeare.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.