[This is a re-print of my review from the 2011 Toronto Film Festival]
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 2012. Anonymous, 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.
The 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 Fearing an all out civil war, Edward de Vere wants to use his unpublished plays to nudge the public against the Cecils—who are his adopted family—and towards the Earl of Essex.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.