Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: John Orloff
Stars: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis
Motion Picture Rating: 130 minutes
Although I am English, and rightly proud of Shakespeare, I did not come to this film with a snobby attitude. It’s important to make that clear because my criticisms of it, and I have a few, are not the result of having my English nose put out of joint by a crass American film-maker. Others may have been quick to judge, and Anonymous hardly lit fires at the UK box office, but I am happy to listen to the odd conspiracy theory no matter the originator and especially if laid out in a great film.
The conspiracy theory in Anonymous is that Shakespeare was a fraud. The director Roland Emmerich, the end of the world go-to guy behind Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, believes that Shakespeare was a front for the real playwright the Earl of Oxford. The theory is that because writing was seen as an impoverished activity at the time, and because the artistic Earl grew up with puritans for guardians, he could not present his own works. As a prologue to the film Emmerich also postulates that Shakespeare did not sign any of his plays, was in fact almost illiterate, and that he did not bequeath any works to his wife in his will.
In order to ram home the theory, and to contrast the two principals, the Earl of Oxford is portrayed as the tortured and brilliant wordsmith whilst Shakespeare is shown to be boorish, ignorant and a show-off. This is heavy handed stuff and the handling of Shakespeare is a major miss-step. The character is unbelievable and the acting of it by Rafe Spall is poor. Rhys Ifans does far better with Oxford and his is the stand-out performance in the film. He does not carry many films, let alone period ones, and he is a revelation in this.
Besides Ifans, there is little to commend the film. The slow-moving story jumps back and forth in time to show various past relationships and on-going feuds and conspiracies, but it does this so badly that it’s nigh impossible to follow the threads. At times it feels like an Elizabethan reality TV show with the affairs, bastards, treacheries and over-acting. The wider shots of London ca. 1600 also look far too much like CGI. It has that unreal Shakespeare in Love feel to it, but it is not played as a romp or a comedy which more than allowed the earlier film to get away with it. Whatever your take on the Shakespeare as a fraud theory, this really is not a good film.