Rhys Ifans, Sebastian Armesto
The shock value of the authorship question is an engaging subject for a film
In Elizabethan England, a plot to usurp the Queen is afoot, as the machiavellian Cecil’s circle the throne. Into this mix comes a series of plays originally attributed to an anonymous writer who later reveals himself to be William Shakespeare. But is he the man history has led us to believe he is or a figurehead in a long gestating plan to shake up the monarchy?
‘We’ve all been played!’ screams the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, which unfurls an alternate version of history through an Elizabethan period drama. Wordplay aside, the film deals somewhat head on with the authorship issue – which suggests that Shakespeare did not in fact write his famous works. For many outside the academic community, this notion will be utterly unfamiliar and the state of play is summarised effectively by a framing narrative in the present day featuring Derek Jacobi, himself an advocate of the authorship debate.
Thereafter, we’re whisked back to 16th Century England and a time where the Queen (Vanessa Redgrave is falling deeper into madness while artistic expression is considered seditious. Ben Jonson (Armesto) is approached by the powerful Earl of Oxford (Ifans), who wants him to assume authorship of his latest play. That is until an eager young actor named Will Shakespeare steps in to steal the limelight.
The shock value of the authorship question is an engaging subject for a film and the decision to make it an inherent part of the wider political struggle of the time is potentially engaging but the increased complexity of the tale makes it difficult to follow. The glut of names and similar looking types in wigs doesn’t help matters. On the flip side, when the film does stop for a bout of exposition, the pronouncements of the characters are so obvious and strained that it’s a chore to watch.
Emmerich has made his name with productions like Independence Day and 2012 and, while they are generally enjoyable, he lacks the subtlety as a director to make this world feel coherent. The script by John Orloff is actually pretty sharp, mixing humour and political machinations to good effect but scenes themselves are leaden and the narrative doesn’t flow.
It doesn’t help that the performances vary wildly. Ifans is great in an unusual role as Oxford and Redgrave is suitably barmy as QEI, while having daughter Joely Richardson play her younger self is a nice touch. Nominal lead Anmesto is incredibly flat, with a forced accent that just sounds daft and villainous characters the Cecils (played by David Thewlis and Edward Hogg) are lumped with stereotypical craven looks and exaggerated physiognomies which wouldn’t be out of place in a fairytale.
Anonymous is a potentially interesting slice of alternate history which brings the niche authorship debate to the masses. Beyond that, it’s an attractive period drama which gets too caught up in its own convolutions to really to justice to the subject matter, despite some decent performances.