Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sebastian Armesto, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi
Whatever our preconceptions about history, it’s easy to take them for granted. When you begin to study the subject you realise that there is rarely a uniform view about anything, and that notions of ‘truth’ are much more murky and uncertain than they appear on the surface. An unlikely purveyor of oppositional theory, Roland Emmerich is more at home with adhering to the expectations of an audience than going against them, but nevertheless helms this tale of fiction’s indubitubly reprised hero William Shakespeare, who has his name on works as iconic as “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” but does that categorically mean that he wrote them? Emphatically, Emmerich suggests that he didn’t, and that instead these plays were written by the then-Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere – an accusation which represents one of the many theories as to the identity of the true author.
A story littered with scandalous accusations of sex, betrayal, and incest, “Anonymous” is far too overstuffed and, frankly, ridiculous to achieve any rounded view of history. The goals of the film are in allaying facts and providing a gung-ho impression of Elizabethan England as a haven for self-interested charlatans, and as such asserts that the truth may be even stranger than fiction. But it’s self-parodical in its radicalism of history as laden with hateful, preposterous characters and cross-generational romances, integrating soapy melodrama into the narrative without riffing on artistic tropes the way that “Shakespeare in Love” did thirteen years ago. It’s probably the trashiest representation of the era since at least “Mary, Queen of Scots” in 1971, proffering snap political decisions as the catalyst for emotional grandstanding.
While many will scoff at Emmerich’s commercialisation of 16th century life, the film’s sheer audacity as an anti-history lesson, estranged from logic, is one of its key attributes. There are storylines and plot twists in “Anonymous” which defy belief, but watching them unfold is often tremendous fun, with Redgrave in fine form as the frothy, culture-loving monarch, and Ifans statuesque as the haughty, melancholy puppetmaster observing from the sidelines. There’s a great deal of character brought to the film, which likely benefits from shying away from straight-laced drama and a self-important tone. The inevitable problems emerge from interloping figures, cliched subplots, intercutting between timeframes (all of which have plagued Emmerich’s films before) and primarily the framing of the theory as a viable option in the first place. It’s difficult to imagine that anybody watching “Anonymous” would entertain this impression of Shakespeare as anything other than a fictional fancy, since so much within its approach spurns intellectual engagement for other exploits.