I went to see Anonymous, the new Roland Emmerich film questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, with cautious anticipation. What I was not expecting was to be thoroughly entertained by a period-piece thriller fantasy, but I was! I loved this movie, and can’t wait to go see it again. Seriously.
Let’s set aside the question of whether or not the film is accurate. The film is wildly inaccurate. The notion that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays is not even the most egregious speculation offered by John Orloff’s cheeky screenplay. If anyone wants to stand outside the theatre and argue that, yes, this is all true, they should be treated about as seriously as someone making that claim about Star Wars or Waiting for Superman. But inside the theatre, we have license to suspend our disbelief. Call it historical fiction, alternate timeline, sci-fi fantasy, or whatever helps the medicine go down, but don’t miss Anonymous for political reasons.
The film is based on the premise that the plays we know as William Shakespeare’s were actually written by Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Unable to claim the plays as his own in a treacherous climate, he asks established playwright Ben Jonson to put his name on them. Jonson wants to keep his voice distinct from the nobleman’s, so an illiterate actor, one William Shakespeare, steps forward and claims the glory. Political maneuverings surrounding the question of who will succeed the aging Queen Elizabeth I create tension for Oxford, who finds that he can speak directly to the people through the voice of his celebrated front man. You see? It all makes perfect sense.
The visual depiction of Elizabethan London is stunning and believable. Rhys Ifans and Sebastian Armesto give outstanding performances as Oxford and Jonson. Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson (her daughter) together create a powerful mutli-dimensional Elizabeth. If you can stomach the depiction of our beloved William Shakespeare as an opportunistic buffoon, he is played to comic perfection by Rafe Spall. But if it does bother you, please remember that Shakespeare himself is largely responsible for our present day image of King Richard III as a deformed child-murderer. Payback’s a bitch, Billy-Boy.
But his own depiction aside, I think Shakespeare is honored by this film. A running theme throughout the movie is that these simple words have the power to delight and to inspire, to incite riots and to seduce monarchs. Will some people come away with the idea that Shakespeare was a fraud? Maybe. But for every audience member who gets that impression, there will be another ten who are moved to find out more about these plays and poems. We get to hear quite a bit of the original language spoken by the magnificent Mark Rylance as Richard Burbage, and the see the power it wields. That’s the transcendent truth that rises above all of the fabrications. And that, ultimately, is what we take away from Anonymous.