A literary conspiracy
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Oct 28, 2011
Remember "Shakespeare in Love"?
With "Anonymous," director Roland Emmerich gives us "Shakespeare in Luck."
Make that "Dumb Luck": In this alternately entertaining and wildly ham-handed speculative romp, Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff advance the notion that William Shakespeare was a fraud and that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, actually wrote those famous plays and poems, his Puritan upbringing and noble station preventing him from dabbling publicly in such ink-stained enterprises.
The adherents of that theory, known as Oxfordians, have found an energetic advocate in Emmerich (best known for such ballistic action pictures as "2012" and "Independence Day"), who has made "Anonymous" a sort of "JFK" for the 16th-century literary fringe.
Here, the Umbrella Man and the Babushka Lady are replaced by such figures as Ben Jonson and Queen Elizabeth I, who witness - wittingly or not - what the movie presents as a political and artistic scandal of Shakesp - er, Oxfordian proportions.
Whether viewers buy its hypothesis, "Anonymous" delivers a reasonably vivacious tale of palace intrigue, backstage catfighting and bodice-ripping lust. Rhys Ifans - so often pigeonholed in scruffy, goofball roles - here delivers an unexpectedly soulful performance as Edward de Vere, a sad-eyed figure of thwarted passion who first calls upon Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to be his amanuensis.
When a mix-up results in an actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) putting his name on de Vere's first play, the fix is in. The vain, drunken Shakespeare proceeds to hog all the credit while de Vere desperately pens thinly veiled allegories in order to prevent the succession of Scotland's King James to the English throne. (In my college days, a class called History of the Tudors and Stuarts was nicknamed "Tuds and Studs"; in "Anonymous," the Tuds are the studs.)
While de Vere covertly propagandizes, Queen Elizabeth still reigns supreme - and as embodied by the exquisite, high-spirited Vanessa Redgrave, she shows no signs of fading. If Oxfordians come to "Anonymous" finally to see their version of history validated, garden-variety filmgoers will find their reward in Redgrave, whose performance brims with intelligence, sensuality and witty, alert spontaneity. (In a clever bit of casting, Emmerich has enlisted Redgrave's real-life daughter, Joely Richardson, as the younger Elizabeth.)
Emmerich engages in some equally arresting pieces of stagecraft, including a wonderfully inventive opening sequence in which the actor Derek Jacobi literally sets the stage for the story; later, during the first performance of "Henry V," the crowd surges forward during the St. Crispin's Day speech to battle the French themselves, an early instance of user-generated content.
But what first promises to be an intriguing if loony divertissement eventually succumbs to outrageousness for its own sake, taking the notion of "band of brothers" to new levels, insistently slandering Shakespeare as a dim, alcoholic lout and sending de Vere's relationship with Queen Elizabeth into the gratuitously tawdry outer reaches.
That "Anonymous" takes its premise so far should prove a comfort to Shakespeare's champions, who have preempted the Oxfordian argument with the swift resolve of the Warren Commission Report's most full-throated defenders post-"JFK."
The filmmakers finally treat viewers to a climax every bit as hyperbolic as the melodrama, in a scene of computer-generated carnage and firepower that wouldn't look out of place in "Independence Day."
Don't let the frilly costumes, courtly language and historical pretense fool you: "Anonymous" is still a Roland Emmerich movie - a blessing when it comes to vigor and a curse when it comes to subtlety, proportion or sense.
Contains violence and sexual content.