Whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote his works may seem like an odd question. Of course he did, right? Yet not only does “Anonymous” make the argument that he was a fraud, it does so in a tense thriller about royal intrigue.
The issue of Shakespeare’s authorship is largely settled. Most scholars agree that Shakespeare was legitimate and claims to the contrary are the stuff of conspiracy theorists. This movie, while not a documentary in any way, does present some very interesting facts about Shakespeare that caused me to read a very long Wikipedia article about him. The movie does an excellent job of adapting one of the popular theories about an alternate author into a thoroughly entertaining and suspenseful story.
The cast is largely people that aren’t very famous. The lead is played by Rhys Ifans, possibly best known as Xenophilius Lovegood from Harry Potter. David Thewlis, another Harry Potter alum, has a small but vital role. And Vanessa Redgrave and her real-life daughter, Joely Richardson, play the elderly and middle-aged Queen Elizabeth, respectively. They are uniformly good, with Ifans being especially hypnotic as the Earl of Oxford, the true author of Shakespeare’s work. The only actor I had a problem with was Sebastian Armesto, who plays Ben Jonson, a colleague of Shakespeare’s who is in on the fraud. He seemed to often employ a Christian Bale-esque “Batman voice” to convey emotion.
For lovers of period dramas, this movie is a visual feast. The costumes, sets, and recreations of London in 1601 are a marvel. Some of it had to be digital, of course, but this is the finest example of digital imagery–invisible. And by the way, this movie is directed by Roland Emmerich, who is best (only?) known for disaster movies like “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” With his blockbuster pedigree toned down for this movie, he still manages some sweeping, epic shots of London, and at least 2 “action” scenes that look great under his practiced eye.
Emmerich’s detractors would say his deficiencies are in the realm of character and plot. The characters here are well-drawn, realistic, and compelling. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but not overly so. Eventually, it’s easy to follow. The problem is “eventually.” There are SO many characters introduced right away, in 3 different timelines, and many have both a title AND a name, which are used interchangeably. For example, Rhys Ifans plays Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. He’s referred to as de Vere, Edward, and Oxford at various points. By the end of the movie, you know who he is by any name, but in the beginning, with several characters with multiple names, it’s hard to catch up. You really need to be on your toes because the movie has a running start. The confusion led to one major misunderstanding that my wife and I both had. We figured it out during the finale, and it wasn’t a big deal, but I wish we would have gotten it right the first time.
The last thing I should note is that those familiar with Shakespeare will probably enjoy all the references to his works throughout. Most people know his most famous plays, of course, but during the snippets of actual performance, it struck me how little I understand Shakespeare’s words. It’s technically English, but I had very little clue what was being said. Lovers of his plays will follow along much better, but since the text of the plays is not important to the story, ignorance of Shakespeare will not hinder your enjoyment.
“Anonymous” represents a unique story, based in fact but embellished for entertainment, that’s never before been seen on screen. The real circumstances about Shakespeare’s qualifications are fascinating. I’d love to see a documentary on it. I rated the movie a 8, but it’s largely dependent on your interest in a literary conspiracy thriller. If just the idea is exciting to you, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. If you’re on the fence though, you might not find it as good.