Did William Shakespeare really create all those enduring plays and sonnets, or was he an illiterate fraud? Roland Emmerich definitely believes the latter, and like a true conspiracy theorist he throws a lot of ideas at the wall — more accurately, the screen — to see what sticks.
Emmerich takes a sharp turn from his usual disaster movie oeuvre with Anonymous, and the world still gets shaken up a bit. For centuries Shakespeare has been lauded as the gold standard of literature, the go-to guy for every student searching for an essay topic or author seeking inspiration. Even someone who never cracked a book would know his reputation and could probably quote a few lines.
Anonymous is Emmerich's way of telling us we've been duped. There are at least a half-dozen theories supporting the notion that various aristocrats and playwrights of the era wrote Romeo and Juliet and the rest. Emmerich throws in with Oxfordians, declaring the greatest writer ever was actually Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, played by Rhys Ifans with the suave amorality of Basil Rathbone.
John Orloff's screenplay makes a compelling case for DeVere, hinging on the fact that writing plays for rabble audiences in the Elizabethan era was considered beneath royalty. DeVere is depicted as a fountain of fine words, a man of the world (at the time) and mischievous enough to jab his fellow royals in prose. DeVere could lose his place in society, perhaps his head, if his authorship were known.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a buffoonish bit player in his own indictment. Rafe Spall is amusing to watch as he drunkenly reels through false celebrity, hijacked on a whim when an adoring audience demands to see the unnamed playwright. According to Anonymous, the only thing Shakespeare contributed to culture was crowd surfing.
Anonymous would be a more enjoyable, cohesive movie if Emmerich and Orloff focused upon these two dissimilar personalities, an Elizabethan Odd Couple, if you will. DeVere could express silent envy of Shakespeare's fame on his talent, and present more concise explanation of why his plays were deemed seditious. Shakespeare could achieve more depth through escalating guilt, and creative envy in return.
But the filmmakers don't know when to stop snooping and examine the evidence at hand. Anonymous winds through a thick registry of lords and earls taking sides in various revolts and coups, and a playbill of Shakespeare's jealous theater peers. It's tough to keep track of who is getting beheaded or dragged to the Tower of London. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave and daughter Joely Richardson (in flashbacks) appear as Queen Elizabeth I to present another jaw-dropper, that the Virgin Queen birthed several illegitimate children, at least one incestuously.
On such occasions, Anonymous slips into unsupported scandal and confusing narrative, undermining the attribution mystery that's alleged to be solved. The most succinct evidence that Shakespeare was a fraud is offered by Derek Jacobi in prologue and epilogue, alone on a Broadway stage before a rapt audience. As usual in matters of the Bard, the play's the thing.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.