Shakespeare is a mere front man for a nobleman who wants to scratch his writerly itch (and influence politics of Elizabethan England) in Anonymous, an alternate history of English literature.
But who cares about that — this movie has sex! Not nearly enough considering that the soapiness of this story is its best quality, but what it has is happily full of drama.
Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), is outwardly living the life of a proper English noble — he hangs out with other earls, he sits in the box seats at the theater, he politely ignores his wife. But inwardly, he is a passionate writer who aches to share his words with the world (something that simply isn’t done by nobility). After seeing a play move its audience to great emotion, he decides to see if he can get his own work produced. He turns to Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) a playwright of some renown but not (yet) such a distinct voice that anyone would notice if a few of his plays sounded a little different. But Jonson is also a capital-W Writer and he doesn’t like the idea of passing anyone else’s words off as his own, even for money. Less morally rigid actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) thinks that sounds like a fine idea, particularly the “for money” part. He doesn’t at first know who the true author is but he’s happy to claim the plays — Henry V, Romeo & Juliet — and the money and fame as his own.
This being a time when writers are frequently hauled into prison on the charge of sedition, Edward is thrilled that his work is well-received even though, and perhaps especially since, nobody knows he’s the one behind the words. As he sees what words plus stagecraft can do to rile up the commoner audience, he decides to make his words more pointed. His longtime rival William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his hunchbacked son Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg) are pushing to make James of Scotland the successor to the aging Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). But Edward and the other earls want the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), believed to be one of the “virgin” queen’s many illegitimate sons, to take over. Bastard though he may be, says Essex and Edward’s buddy the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), at least he’s a Tudor. Thus does Edward present Richard III and its hunchbacked villain.
This is all Edward’s present, but his young life was full of turmoil as well. As a young man, Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) became a ward of the Cecil family and fought against their “no arts” edict. He was a fan of theater, even writing plays and presenting them to the young Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson, Redgrave’s real-life daughter). Even though he was backed in to marrying William Cecil’s no-fun daughter Anne (Helen Baxendale), Edward has an eye for Elizabeth and even starts an affair with her.
Secret trysts! Secret plays! Corsets, swords and court drama! Anonymous isn’t the pure heaving-bosom fun that, say, Showtime’s The Tudors was, but it has many of the same enjoyable components. It’s Real HouseEarls of London — with a few subplots about the less well-cushioned non-nobles like Ben Jonson. I enjoyed it and its little twists and power struggles on that level, the level of well-made but sort of cheap entertainment.
The movie’s attempt to sell me on the “true identity” of Shakespeare was less successful, mostly because I don’t really care. It seems rather irrelevant whether the specific guy known as William Shakespeare is the true author of the works we connect with his name or whether the truth is fuzzier than that. Centuries later, it’s the words and the stories that are studied and important — the guy himself is just another cute image on a Barnes & Noble mug. It’s fun to pick out the scenes from Edward’s life — stabbing a guy behind a curtain, the scheming hunchback — that are also a part of a Shakespeare play, but I suspect that has more to do with my being excited to make use of that part of my lit degree and less about its building a compelling case. The movie didn’t leave me feeling like we needed an Earl of Oxford Appreciation Day so the “history” (or whatever) ends up taking a back seat to all the bed-hopping and the king-making.
Performance wise, Ifans’ Edward had just enough layers to keep him from being completely one-dimensional. Bower as young Edward is a fluffy-haired teen heartthrob, all romance and big eyes. Ifans is that guy grown up — less exciting, a little sad. The dichotomy brings more to the character than is probably there on the page. (Because everyone’s in pale makeup it did make me wonder if that’s what that other Edward, of Twilight fame, would be like if vampires could grow into middle age. He’d be mournful but less sparkly, maybe with a bit of a paunch. His dislike of direct sunlight would keep him working a night-shift job — he’d be the security guard writing lovesick poetry while keeping an eye on a bank of fuzzy cameras, occasionally getting up to tell kids not to loiter. Angst-filled sigh.)
Likewise, the Richardson/Redgrave Elizabeth is a fairly mesmerizing character even though she is not at the center of much of the action. Redgrave plays her queen as one who is slipping a bit into a fog of old age — and knows it. Richardson plays her as the fiery-haired force-of-nature queen who inherited plenty of We-get-what-We-want from her father, Henry VIII. Because there is so much natural resemblance between the real-life mother and daughter, it truly makes the character feel like one person.
Anonymous is good costume drama entertainment even if it doesn’t add up to much more than that. B-
PG-13 for violence and sexual content. Directed by Roland Emmerich and written by John Orloff, Anonymous is two hours and 10 minutes long and distributed by Columbia Pictures.