Anonymous is a film based on the absolutely rubbish idea that William Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays. It’s the sort of theory that really appeals to dummies, but it’s actually a pretty decent concept for a movie. I could get all up in arms that less-intelligent people who see Anonymous will walk away thinking Shakespeare is a fraud but a) who cares what they think and b) nobody’s going to see this movie anyway. So divorcing the basic stupidity from the theory, the idea of a conspiracy thriller focusing on Shakespeare is intriguing.
The film, however, is not intriguing. It’s fairly well acted and it’s certainly lush looking, but it never truly creates a strong argument for its own existence. It isn’t until the end, when things get hysterically overwrought and heightened, that I truly began to enjoy Anonymous on any level approaching what I expect from an Emmerich film.
In Anonymous it’s the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (played by Rhys Ifans with an Oliver Queen-esque Van Dyke) who wrote all the plays of Shakespeare. Secretly, because it did not befit a man of his stature, sent into foster care in a Puritan home, to be writing such junk. Even though said junk amused Queen Elizabeth (played when young by a very sexy, very present Joely Richardson) - who it turns out saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed twenty years before its official debut, starring none other than a teenaged De Vere.
William Shakespeare, however, is a half-illiterate (he can read just fine (he’s an actor) but cannot ‘form his letters,’ a strange dichotomy to be sure. In one scene he reads some text and then is challenged to write an e, which he cannot. Despite having just seen a bunch of es) drunken whoremonger who ends up taking credit for the plays after noted playwright Ben Johnson refuses. See, grown De Vere decides to dust off his plays, which have been accumulating for decades, when the battle for the succession to Queen Elizabeth’s throne (old Elizabeth is played wonderfully by Vanessa Redgrave. It’s a role that allows her to be strong and weak, regal and sexual - ie, the sort of role for older women that never exists) gets ugly. De Vere thinks that his plays, when presented to the stinking rabble at the Globe Theater, will change popular opinion and get the right man on the throne.
And it’s personal for him. Not only is his nemesis the hunchbacked son of the Puritan who raised him (Edward Hogg is hunchbacked Robert Cecil, who needs only a mustache to be a mustache twirling villain. David Thewlis, often operating under two tons of old age make-up is the father, the Puritan who raised De Vere) backing the wrong man for the throne, but the populist claimant to the throne is De Vere's own illegitimate son. Intrigue!
That might be a spoiler, because Anonymous takes forever to set up all the players and the sides, and because it’s a soap opera it actually keeps producing reveals and twists. There’s a final reveal about De Vere that’s so insane, so hilarious, that I almost liked the movie! It’s just that kind of film.
Ifans is very good as De Vere, even though his prissy Van Dyke and pompous airs convinced me at first that he was the villain of the piece. He’s a man haunted by mistakes of his past, who is driven to write by what might be best described as schizophrenia - voices in his head. It’s the kind of thing a writer puts into his script to make writers seem really tortured and artistic and important. I’m sure screenwriter John Orloff was forced by similar voices in his head to write Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hool.
I quite liked Rafe Spall as Shakespeare; while a drunken lout he’s the only guy in the movie having any fun. Of course the film seems to recognize that he’s likable, so it makes him a murderer as well as a liar and a self-possessed jerkwad. I still liked him better than anybody else in the movie, especially because the guy he murdered was a complete and total prick.
It’s worth noting the film’s unusual structure, which almost makes you able to forgive its harebrained theories on the Bard. It opens with Derek Jacobi on stage, doing a dress rehearsal for a play called Anonymous. Jacobi, one of the great Shakespearean actors of our time, begins a monologue about how maybe everything we know about Shakespeare isn’t quite correct, and begins the play - which begins the movie. In the opening Ben Johnson is captured by the evil hunchback and tortured in order to find all of Shakespeare’s plays; this torture makes Johnson begin remembering the events of the previous few years. Within that flashback within a movie within a play we have OTHER flashbacks to events that not only did Johnson not witness, but where he wasn’t even yet alive.
So you see, Anonymous isn’t even making a particularly strong push for its own case, cushioning the silly conspiracy theory in layer upon layer of unreliability. Which is good, and which is smart - at the very least it allows Orloff and Emmerich some plausible deniability when scholars inevitably proclaim “WTF.”
What this structure does not do is hide the film’s grating classism. The main argument against Shakespeare as author is the fact that Shakespeare was... born poor. In Anonymous a 14 year old rich kid could write plays that no poor adult could ever write. There are other bits of ‘evidence,’ but the main thrust of the appeal is ‘Come on, do you really think a member of the rabble could write such true and beautiful things?’
Which brings us back to the first paragraph. Anonymous - and Emmerich by extension - has an interesting relationship with the rabble. It almost exalts the way they react to plays, with abandon and interaction, quite unlike the stuffy so and sos at Court. But the film finds these people essentially distasteful, more or less useful idiots. As the nobles play their games, the rabble becomes a pawn; when a mob of theater goers is slaughtered by the authorities (with cannons!) the only real sorrow is that they can’t show up where they’re needed to offer support to De Vere’s candidate for the throne.
Emmerich draws an explicit comparison between himself and Shakespeare (or the other great playwrights of the time) by showing us again and again that the theater of the masses - unlike the theater of the Court - is dominated by flashy special effects and action set pieces. The crowds are awestruck by the crashing thunder and sprays of blood, and are totally in the thrall of the play. This is how Emmerich sees himself - of the aristocracy (he was born very wealthy) but not part of them. Like De Vere he’s sensitive and artistic, and like De Vere he has a naturally populist bent. He wouldn’t dream of actually hanging around with the people, but he can rouse that rabble like nobody else. And he loves the way they react to his entertainments (which, of course, hide deep political meanings. See Day After Tomorrow), even if he doesn’t love them.
This is Shakespeare reclaimed for the 1%, a version of the Bard that reinforces the idea that only the wealthy and educated can find truth and beauty. Anonymous is a movie about how strong and important ideas can be, but says these ideas must be forced on the masses, who are utterly incapable of having them on their own. This is a movie told from the point of view of the very rich liberal, the guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing for a class of people he despises... yet feels for, like you or I might feel for a filthy, pustulent animal.
I wish that the movie itself were as rotten as its themes, but Anonymous is mostly just as the title indicates. It’s too long and it’s overstuffed, but it’s mostly simply mediocre. Like most Emmerich films it’s jammed with phony CGI - this time mostly set extensions and backgrounds - and it’s filled with stilted exposition and scenes that seem to go nowhere. The cast is beyond able, and there are pleasures to be found in watching some of these people work. The production and costume design is often wonderful, and I imagine when you see ‘Oscar nominated’ on the DVD box for Anonymous, these things will be what get the nods.