Anonymous was always going to controversial to a certain type of person. If it’s not the fact that the film subscribes to the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare’s authorship (translation: he probably didn’t write anything), then it’s the fact it’s fronted by Derek Jacobi, who you would think would be one of those people who’d be against that kind of thinking, and it’s all been directed by Roland Emmerich. Roland Emmerich; The man who gave us Godzilla, Independence Day and Shit Blowing Up in Slow Motion Part 5.
If you’re a firm believer that ol’ Will did exist and you can quite happily reel off a two lecture, with PowerPoint, of reasons why, then this is the kind of film you should probably ignore and carry on with the rest of your day. Cook a paella, go for a run, stick your fingers in your ears and go lalalalalalala. Even if you’re in the camp that believes Shakespeare was nothing but an actor, then the loose and fast usage of facts may still disappoint. Anonymous doesn’t so much take liberties with history, it has sex with history’s wife and daughter when he is at work.
Taken as a work of alternative history, like Fatherland, then Anonymous can easily be enjoyed. A life being suppressed by his wife, his father-in- law and the stigma of print, has led Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) to lock his talent for writing plays away from the world. A chance visit to the theater leads de Vere to rediscover the power of the written word. He takes playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) under his wing and encourages him to put on his plays, all of which are propaganda for Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave). On the first night of Henry V, Johnson’s sudden nerves leads to famed actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), claiming the play as his… And so it begins. The rest of the film is set against the backdrop of an attempt to dethrone Lizzy the First, with people whispering in corridors and shouting in the streets.
Ifans gives a sterling performance. Dark and brooding, his tragic de Vere is comparable, maybe deliberately so, to Hamlet. On the other end of the spectrum, Spall’s Shakespeare is a comic character who stops the whole thing becoming too po-faced.
Not surprisingly for a film based around Shakespeare, the dialogue is at times completely impenetrable and it’s easy to become lost. However, that doesn’t stop it being utterly engrossing. It’s all such a ripping yarn with fantastic set pieces. Hell, even the Globe doesn’t escape the Emmerich treatment, being blown up in the first five minutes.
If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, Anonymous will certainly test that will. However, if given a chance you’ll be happy to be carried away, historical accuracy be damned!