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In Anonymous, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) tells young playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), “All artists have something to say because otherwise they’d just make shoes.”  It’s a funny quote when you consider that director Roland Emmerich’s previous filmography is mainly comprised of brainless blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012Anonymous, a political thriller wrapped in a conspiracy theory, could not be further from those movies and Emmerich sets out like a man with something to prove.  There are no monsters, aliens, cataclysms, and the only explosion is the destruction of the Globe Theatre, which actually did burn to the ground in 1613.  The film plays fast and loose with most historical facts (including why the Globe burned down), but it manages to craft an intriguing period piece before getting bogged down in political intrigue and tearing down historical figures.

anonymous-movie-poster-01The movie begins on a stage where an unnamed man (Derek Jacobi) presents the audience with the controversial theory that William Shakespeare did not write his own plays. As actors fill the stage, the camera zooms in and we’re transported back to 1613 London where Jonson is running from armed guards and attempting to hide stacks of paper.  He manages to hide the documents in a chest inside the Globe and then burn the theater to the ground before he’s captured and brought in for interrogation.

The story then cuts back five years and we see Jonson as a struggling playwright with Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) in his company of actors.  The political landscape of England is changing as the health of the elderly Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) begins to fade and two sides cast their eyes towards seizing the throne.  On the one side are the Queen’s chief advisor William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg) who support King James of Scotland as the heir/puppet.  The other faction supports the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) who is heavily rumored to be the Queen’s bastard son.  Fearing an all out civil war, Edward de Vere wants to use his unpublished plays to nudge the public against the Cecils—who are his adopted family—and towards the Earl of Essex.  Since to do so publicly would result in serve consequences, de Vere asks that his plays be submitted anonymously through Jonson.  However, after a rousing performance of Henry V, the audience demands to know the playwright and Shakespeare seizes the opportunity to take the credit.

Thrown on top of all of this is a storyline taking place thirty years prior where we see a young Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) trying to keep his writing a secret from the puritanical Cecil household.  However, his plays and poems win the heart of young Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) and the two carry on a secret affair which will have both short and long-term repercussions.  If those storylines were enough, there’s also Jonson’s anger at Shakespeare’s fraud, Shakespeare’s abuse of his newfound fame, and de Vere’s relationship with the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel).


That’s a lot of plot, a lot of characters, and for the first hour it Anonymous looks like it will be able to balance the complexities of the story while weaving in the thoughtful subtext about an artist’s work being more important than the artist.  The direction is self-assured, the cinematography is lush and filled with warm colors, and all of the storylines proceed and intertwine at a captivating pace.

But then you begin to realize you don’t really know any of the characters.  Everyone is made up of motives but with little motivation.  The Cecils want to control Elizabeth because they want power.  Jonson wants to bring down Shakespeare because Shakespeare is a buffoon whose massive ego is causing massive headaches for everyone else.  De Vere wants to use his plays to protect England, but we never quite see how most of his selections are influential.  Some of the characters are clear criticisms of either Robert or William Cecil, and the plays MacBeth and Hamlet have political undertones, but where’s the criticism in Romeo & Juliet?  And how does Shakespeare get access to A Midsummer’s Night Dream when we see De Vere perform the play for Elizabeth forty years earlier?  Anonymous keeps putting the cart in front of the horse.


The Shakespeare-as-Fraud angle is the hook of Anonymous and it offers the promising subtext, but Emmerich loses the thread by pursuing the political angle at the expense of all else.  We bounce between time periods, we bounce between political players, and the story begins to grind to a halt since the characters become secondary to the intrigue.  As the political story continues to build and a tragic element starts to seep into the plot, the Shakespeare angle becomes a distracting sideshow until Emmerich finally finds a reason to make it crucial to the film’s climax.  By the time de Vere finally makes the pen mightier than the sword, the fascinating creator/creation subtext has been lost.

Thankfully, the political intrigue and the world Emmerich has built are sturdy enough to hold our interest although the story would be far richer with better character development.  More problematic is taking the age’s two best-known figures: Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespare, and making them downright loathsome.  At first, Shakespeare functions at the comic relief, but then he takes on a more sinister role and you’re left to wonder why the film needs him to be a villain.  More bizarre is how much hate the film reserves for Elizabeth.  Elizabeth I was revered as one of England’s greatest monarchs and she navigated her country through war and upheaval while keeping opposing countries at bay.  Anonymous thinks she’s a moron and a slut.  Elizabeth is easily manipulated by the Cecils and is given the reputation as a woman with secret bastard children and lovers floating around.  If this information were done to humanize Elizabeth, I could respect it, but these negative qualities are all we see of her.

Anonymous won’t make you drastically reevaluate your opinion of Roland Emmerich but he’s proved he can deliver an exciting movie which can be enjoyed without irony. Despite the stolid pacing of the second half and the weak characterization, the movie’s biggest saving grace is Shakespeare’s plays.  The most dramatic moments of Anonymous don’t come from the political backstabbing or secret romances but from hearing the Saint Crispin’s Day speech of Henry V, the “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue from Richard III, and other famous moments that Shakespeare fans know by heart.  Whether you believe Shakespeare wrote his plays (he did) or if someone else was responsible (they weren’t), Anonymous acknowledges the power of “Words, words, words.”  Not a bad message from a director whose last film had a limo drive through a building.

Rating: B-

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far:

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  • Bill Graham

    So happy you seem to have enjoyed this film for the most part. Spectacle for spectacle has gotten stale from him. Glad he can show a different side and do it well. You never want to see a director pigeon hole himself.

  • elwinransom

    Matt, I’m sure you don’t care about what I have to say, but damn I’m impressed with how quickly you get these reviews out.

  • grittymcgritterson

    Wow, a B. I’m going to mark that an A+ for Roland Emmerich territory.

  • Paul Streitz

    Roland Emmerich’s movie has the historical relationship’s correct.

    Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the son of Queen Elizabeth I, the author known as William Shakespeare, and had an incestuous affair with the Queen resulting in the Earl of Southampton. The book somewhat confuses the time periods and the introduction of William Shakspere (as Shakespeare), but literary license must be allowed to compress actions that took place over years into a dramatic piece.

    A solid review by the writer.

    For more information on the Authorship issue, http://www.shakespeareidentifed.com

    Paul Streitz
    author: Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I

  • William Ray

    While I agree with the reviewer that the plot was not smooth, nor the overall message, and probably it would have been better to just tell the truth, whatever the warts, I respect the director and screen-writer for taking on a repressed topic centering on our most revered author. It is an indication of intellectual stature and courage that they questioned the fable that has been fed to us about how the Shakespeare canon originated. The academic elite has run from facing the historical wrongness of the Stratford legend, including outlawing any PhD candidate who wants to write about it. That tend to put a damper on inquiry and tells the next generation what they are supposed to think. One correction, there is no evidence Edward de Vere wanted to assist the Essex rebels by putting on Richard II [Richard III in the movie]. He was sick and weak at home and was utterly loyal to Elizabeth. The rebels themselves paid the actors to do it as a rabble-rousing technique. de Vere did save his rebel son Southampton’s life by cutting a deal with the Principal Secretary Robt. Cecil, Lord Cranbourne, to never have his work published posthumously under his name. Since this snuffed future criticism of the reign’s managers, embedded in the plays, it was left the history to them, and they wrote it as Gloriana, not the barbaric ruthless tyranny it was.

  • D. Richard Lewis

    The Producer and the Director of this film evidently did not research the Lord Francis Bacon connection with Shakespeare…..If they had, they would have made a film of titanic proportions. First of all, the Earl of Oxford was one of seven members of Bacon’s, “Helmet Bearer’s Club,” whose patron saint was the “Goddess Phallus Athena.” Because the statue of her holds a “spear” she was also called, “The Shaker of the Spear of Knowledge at the Serpent of Ignorance.” This is the reason why Bacon, who was the leader of this group of literary giants, choose the man Shakepere, (he spelled his name without the last “a” in his name.) Bacon made him add the other “a” in case he was hauled up in front of a judge for writing these treasonable plays. Since Bacon was also the head of the Masonic Order, as well as the secret son of Queen Elizabeth the First, he wanted to educate the non-reading public of the tyranny of kings through the production of the plays……A clue to Bacon’s part authorship of the plays lies in the King James Bible which Bacon edited. One has only to look up the 46th psalm of David and count the 46th word down which is “Shake,” and the 46th word up, which is, “Spear,” to see this clue…..There are countless others, such as, “The North Cumberland Manuscript,” listing many of the plays with Bacon’s signature…..

  • Thomas D

    The Director is simply exploring one of the ideas, perhaps the most likely or his favourite. What about the most recent theory, with Thomas Marlowe, by Calvin Hoffman. Just as numerous parallels were drawn between the works of Bacon and Shakespeare, Hoffman saw similarities between the acknowledged works of Marlowe and those of Shakespeare, which caused him to deduce that Marlowe was Shakespeare. In 1593 the Queen’s Coroner passed a verdict that Marlowe had been killed in a drunken brawl. Essentially, Hoffman had to find a way to argue not only that Shakespeare was a fraud, but that the true author of the plays had risen from the dead / had managed to convince the Queen’s Coroner and various witnesses to lie about his death.

  • Christoph Mill

    The film was only a 30 million dollar budget. It was defiantly a small Emmerich film, but I think it is going to be one of his best. Focusing on the main idea that Edward De Vere wrote the famous works is one the highly political debates.

  • Kendall

    Where is all the theories on Bacon? It is the one that makes the most logical sense. There are parallels with both ideas and expression in the work of Bacon and the plays of Shakespeare. Bacon is thought to have disliked his legal career, only going into it due to parental pressure and his own ambition – the writing of plays and poems provided him with the creative outlet he wanted. And it is known that the writer of ‘Shakespeare’ was well educated in the Law.

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  • Thomas D

    The film comes out soon, and I’m looking forward to going to the cinema. I just came across this interesting clip with Emmerich explaining why he thinks Shakespeare is a fraud. He knows what he talking about.

  • Kendall

    He is another interview with Roland
    I think this is one of the better ones. I still wish he would have focused more theories with Bacon.

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