A fascinating but confusing muse on Shakespeare’s truth
Beware the ire of William Shakespeare fans. The Bard’s die-hards might not appreciate the beguiling premise of “Anonymous,” namely, that Stratford’s favorite son was not only a fraud who didn’t write any of the plays credited to him, but as portrayed here (by Rafe Spall) was also a scheming, blackmailing, and illiterate buffoon.
Still, the film, directed by erstwhile epic movie director Roland Emmerich (“2012,” “Independence Day”) has artistic merit and is acted with typically British repertory skill and panache. But egad, one needs to practically be a history expert or have an Elizabethan pedigree chart in hand to keep up with all the political skullduggery and illicit scandal of the crowded script.
To that end, “Anonymous” is an intriguing but frustrating film and one designed, it would seem, only for Shakespeare’s most ardent (and just as important) educated, devotees. The type of course, who are likely to balk at the premise in the first place.
Part of the film’s problem are the constant flashbacks and flash-forwards as the story bounces around the late 16th and early 17th centuries, so much so that it is often difficult to identify the characters. For starters, the story suggests that it was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (hence the nickname “Oxfordians” for those who believe the film’s conceit) played with dogged empathy by Rhys Ifans, who penned the plays. Then, to avoid embarrassment—yes such diversions as the theater arts were ostracized by aristocracy—de Vere passed the parchments on to aspiring playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto).
Feeling unworthy or perhaps scared of the politically satirical nature of the plays, the Earl’s first writings end up in actor Will Shakespeare’s hands and he is more than willing to take credit for the plays’ popularity.
Though this plotline would seem to be the film’s primary concern, more screen time is given to the succession of Queen Elizabeth I (played in her advanced age superbly by Vanessa Redgrave) and the attempt by the Essex house to seize power from the royal family. A cast of what seems like hundreds performs admirably and the enactment of portions of the plays and period detail and costuming are stellar.
But there is simply too much ado about everything here. Ambitious to a fault, “Anonymous” is terrific in ancillary detail and unnecessarily complex in basic storytelling. It is a wild, ribald tale worth telling, but this film is often more frustrating than exhilarating.
Rated PG-13 for adult themes and brief nudity.