Anonymous offers an alternate historical account of the creation and popularization of the works of William Shakespeare. Based on a real but unsubstantiated theory, the plot suggests that all of Shakespeare’s famous plays and sonnets were actually the work of the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), a wunderkind writer who is shackled by the constraints of his upper class status and therefore can’t release the plays under his own name. The Earl teams with a young playwright, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to create the ruse, choosing a drunken actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as his avatar.
The biggest compliment I can give Anonymous, aside from it being a decent period drama, is that it doesn’t feel like a Roland Emmerich movie. That director, famous for huge blockbusters like 2012 and Independence Day, hasn’t made what I would call a “good” movie in close to twenty years, so it’s nice to see him scale back his typical “disaster porn” and take on a more personal, controlled film. The movie works particularly well in the first half, as the Earl suffers as he watches his own plays from the balcony of London theaters, unable to accept the applause and credit bestowed upon the blithering young actor. It has shades of The Prestige, in which Hugh Jackman’s character, relying on a body double, must take his bows beneath the stage to complete the illusion while his double relishes in the ovation above.
But by the end, the movie seems to get too wrapped up in the politics of its setting. The magic of the first half gives way to plodding explanations of character motives that have nothing to do with the much more interesting “who is the real author?” question. Rhys Ifans, soon to be donning scales as The Lizard in the upcoming reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, is solid as the Earl of Oxford, but it’s Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays the younger version of that same character in flashbacks, that provides this film with an emotional spark. Real life mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play the older and younger versions of the Queen, respectively, and both actresses are excellent.
Speaking of flashbacks, this movie LOVES them. It jumps through the timeline often, and structurally it can leave the audience scratching its collective head at times. The film opens with a performance of a play (which is the movie we’re about to see) in modern day New York City, and quickly transitions into the “film world” with Ben Jonson being questioned as to the location of the works of “Shakespeare.” It flashes back one year earlier, setting up characters and explaining the world, and then flashes back forty years before that, skipping back and forth between those last two time frames for the majority of the film to detail the relationship between the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth across the years. Confused yet? It then skips back to one year later, and wraps up with the modern day New York stuff again. It all makes sense, it’s just a little messy from a storytelling and editing standpoint.
Is Anonymous worth seeing in theaters? There’s certainly no epic scope to it, so I’d say it’s not necessary. Is it worth seeing at all? As with all film choices, that’s up to you – but I’ll recommend a home video viewing if you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, good period pieces, or revisionist history. It’s inspiring at times, favoring the power of words over swords on battlefields; though the film never explores these acknowledgments too deeply, it still touches on them in an engrossing way for most of its duration. Until next time…