When I first saw the trailer for Roland ‘independence Day’ Emmerich’s ”Anonymous”, I have to admit that I was instantly captivated by the promise of an intriguing plotline set against the stunning backdrop of Elizabethan England.
The film opens in the modern day, where notable stage performer Derek Jacobi provides a brief lecture on the Oxfordian Theory of Shakespeare authorship, which operates under the belief that the literary works attributed to William Shakespeare were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Following Jacobi’s lecture, we are transported into the past, where Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (Edward Hogg) is ordering a frantic search for Shakespeare’s trove of manuscripts as the Globe theatre is torched; the film then casts the viewer further into the past as it follows the life of clandestine writer Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) and how he comes to employ illiterate actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as a front through which his works can be made public.
As someone who is fascinated by the rich history of England’s Tudor and Elizabethan periods, I have to admit that this film was a feast for the eyes. Emmerich has captured most successfully the dazzling beauty and wealth of the royal court alongside the far plainer and less fortunate lifestyle led by the common people. Backdrops of country manors, ancient castles and classic theatres are outstandingly designed and the detail evident in many of the lavish costumes helps create a very real sense of a time gone by.
Whilst ”Anonymous” was able to truly immerse me in its sensory experience (and not surprisingly considering it’s director is most famous for his expensive, explosive action blockbusters like “Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”), I cannot say the same for the plotline. As a closet history buff, I consider myself to have a fairly solid knowledge when it comes to the who’s-who that are featured in the film; that being said, I still found it rather difficult to successfully track which character was which and with whom they were quarrelling. The constantly switching timeline of the film and the general sense that everyone looks rather similar – perhaps because many of them are apparently related – left me frantically trying to ascertain who each character was, what was motivating them and even how they fit into the plot.
Despite the film’s continually twisting plotline, I was impressed by how convincingly the film presents an alternative view of history, not just in the sense that Shakespeare was little more than a fraud, but that Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) – commonly known as the Virgin Queen – was far more promiscuous than ever before described. Not only is it made clear through the film that she gave birth in secret to several illegitimate children, but it is also hinted at that she has unwittingly committed incest with her own son.
Rhys Ifans provides a truly commendable performance as the creative yet repressed Edward de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave provides a perfectly dramatic and passionate representation of Queen Elizabeth I. However, though Rafe Spall could have transformed his portrayal of the duplicitous Shakespeare into something rather compelling, it smacked just a little too much of Johnny Depp a-la Jack Sparrow.
Overall, it certainly isn’t the worst film out there to see – especially if the previews were enough to capture your fancy – simply because it provides a dramatic and entertaining rendering of some of the world’s most lauded literary works in a visually stunning way. I will, however, issue a caveat to those who are passive film-goers, as your full attention will be required to understand such a demanding story.