‘Anonymous’ movie review: Shakespeare conspiracy theory from Roland Emmerich

“Was Shakespeare a fraud?” Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous wastes no time in getting to the answer: yes. A loony, unconvincing, unsubstantiated yes. But by the end, it also seems to be asking another question: who cares?

Of course, it wasn’t Shakespeare, the man – here played by Rafe Spall as an opportunistic, illiterate (!) drunkard – who mattered; his lasting legacy was contained in his words. And if someone else happened to write them? A rose by any other name (forgive me)…

It’s a stance that Anonymous (to its credit) ultimately seems to take. By the end, the power of Shakespeare’s plays has been realized, the author himself deemed largely irrelevant. But by that time, inevitably, this slickly-produced conspiracy saga has become a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing (okay, last time).

The real author of Shakespeare’s plays here is Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford, a popular choice among Anti-Stratfordians. That’s about where similarities to the “official” Oxfordian theories end, though John Orloff’s script amusingly cobbles together elements from a variety of conspiracies, resulting in a riotous and appropriately Shakespearian climactic revelation.

But instead of focusing on the conspiracy, this is a disarmingly straightforward account of the life of de Vere, his relationship with Queen Elizabeth (played, in different times, by Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson), his quarrel with William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his hunchback son Robert (Edward Hogg), and his decision (to curry political favor) to release his secret plays to the public via playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto). 

Johnson’s reluctance to assume authorship of the plays results in credit taken by the drunken actor Shakespeare (Spall).

Anonymous may be straightforward in terms of actual story, but the narrative attempts to make up for it. A good portion of the film, which opens and closes rather nicely with Derek Jacobi – no stranger to Shakespeare – as our contemporary narrator, is told as a flashback (the young de Vere and Queen Elizabeth) within a flashback (de Vere, Johnson, and Shakespeare) within a flashback (Johnson interrogated by royal guards).

Anonymous is polished and well-crafted, a rather jarring (but more than welcome) change of pace for disaster movie director Emmerich (2012, 10,000 BC, The Day After Tomorrow). The almost salacious material gives it an inherently watchable quality, but the conspiracy aspect is never really taken advantage of, the message is muddled, and by the end it feels rather empty and unsubstantial.

Still, Anonymous isn’t without its pleasures. The acting is uniformly fine: I was especially impressed with Ifans (who gives a quiet, determined performance) and Spall (who I also liked in another recent unsympathetic role in One Day). And Redgrave and Richardson (her daughter) are absolutely perfect as Elizabeth.

There’s probably a good JFK-style examination of the Shakespeare conspiracy theories to be made, but this isn’t it. Those interested in the actual conspiracy theories surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays are likely to get more out of Wikipedia.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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