Did William Shakespeare write his own plays? For centuries, scholarship has taken the Bard’s 154 sonnets and 37 immortal stage works at face value. However, in more recent times it has become somewhat fashionable to deconstruct the man, the myth and the legend that was William Shakespeare. After all, there are plenty of inconsistencies in the historical record to suggest alternative theories. The most prominent fact is that Shakespeare effectively retired from playwriting shortly after the death of Edward De Vere, and at the height of his own popularity. He left London and retired to Stratford on Avon where he became a successful grain merchant for the rest of his days.
Shakespeare's plays were published in a folio seven years after his death, but from manuscripts not written in Shakespeare's own hand. Even more curious, Shakespeare's father as well as Shakespeare's daughters were all illiterate. The question therefore remains, how did a man of such eloquence in verse learn his craft when no one in his family before or after him could even spell their own name? And then of course there is the name itself...or rather, the signature. Only a few samples rumored to be Shakespeare's original hand exist. But these often misspell his name, or perhaps more to the point, spell it differently than we have all been taught is the correct spelling.
And now comes Roland Emmerich's Anonymous (2011); a retelling of the man behind the legend that goes even further into antiquity to deconstruct the myth of William Shakespeare. Emmerich's film is part scholastic re-interpretation and part clever revision a la the likes of screenwriter and historian John Orloff, who manages to mangle about as much of the screen's time with pure speculation as he does with fact. Even so, Anonymous is a film of multi-layered variables, court intrigue, pure poppycock and more than an ounce of respectable truth all rolled into one. The tale is told from the vantage of our present day fascination about Shakespeare's origins with actor Derek Jacobi serving as our master of ceremonies. We regress through Jacobi's narration to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, our story beginning one dark and stormy night. Playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) is cornered inside the Globe Theater, then arrested by Sir Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg). The theater is torched by Cecil's guards and Johnson tortured into divulging the whereabouts of a certain assortment of popular plays attributed to one William Shakespeare.
As yet, we are quite unaware of the importance of these opening moments, but soon enough we regress even further back in time. As a young boy, Robert (Isaiah Michalski) was insanely jealous of his own father, Sir William's (David Thewlis) devotion to his ward, Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower). Edward's desire to write is not in keeping with William's puritan household. After Edward accidentally murders one of William's spies lurking behind a curtain in his study, William suggests a plausible way to keep his young ward from the chopping block. Edward will marry William's daughter, Anne (Helen Baxendale) even though William is quite aware that Edward has already taken Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson) to bed.
Flash forward forty years into the future. Edward (Rhys Ifans) is more determined than ever that he have his voice heard in the theatre. To this end he engages Ben Johnson to produce his plays under no particular authorship. Audiences are enthralled by the plays that follow. But Johnson grows more sullen as each new work he produces becomes a magnificent success. For he can neither claim credit for the works himself, nor expose Edward as its true author. "You have no voice," Edward tells Johnson, "That is why you were chosen!" Meanwhile, Robert Cecil's ambitions to be the man nearest the throne of England have resulted in wicked manipulations of the Queen (now played by Vanessa Redgrave). On Sir Robert's suggestion the Queen orders the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) and the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) to fight against Spain. Essex has been the Queen's lover and private confident for years. But Southampton is the Queen's bastard son by Edward. The Queen does not know this. Neither does Edward.
At The Globe, an unhappy accident occurs. A mere bit player named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) emerges from behind the curtain after a performance of Hamlet to declare himself the author of the play. Ben Johnson and Edward are in attendance, but powerless to dispel Will's lie without exposing their own. Henceforth, Will Shakespeare will claim credit for all of Edward's clever stagecraft. Now, the film's narrative becomes moderately complex as John Orloff's screenplay juggles between the youthful dalliances of young Edward and Elizabeth, and the present, where Edward has become increasingly embroiled in a plot to defy Robert's plan to have King James succeed Elizabeth on the throne. In the past narrative, after William Cecil parts the Queen from Edward, the latter takes up with Bessie Vavasour (Vicky Krieps). Robert Cecil informs her majesty of Edward's new love and she jealously has the two fornicators imprisoned. But William comes to Edward's rescue, forcing him back into his loveless marriage with Anne.
In the present narrative, Will threatens Ben Johnson to hold his tongue after Johnson vows to expose Will as a fraud. Edward plans to restore Essex as the man nearest the throne of England and the Queen's heart. But Robert thwarts Edward's organization of a spontaneous mob to rally in Essex's defense. Instead, Essex arrives at the Queen's residence with men loyal to him, only to be ambushed by Robert's guards. Robert tells the Queen that Essex has come to destroy her and take command of the throne for himself. Robert then confesses the truth to Edward, that he was the son of his own father, William Cecil and the Queen. In seducing the Queen as a young man he committed incest with his own mother to produce the Earl of Southampton. Essex and Southampton are imprisoned and slated for beheading. Essex eventually loses his head, but Edward finagles a deal for Southampton by confessing to the Queen the truth of his ancestry and that of her bastard child. The Queen spares Southampton's life with Edward's promise that he will never learn of his true parentage. But she also banishes Edward by having his name stricken from the official record forever. Henceforth, Will Shakespeare will lay claim to all authorship of Edward's plays.
The years pass. The Queen dies. Then Edward dies. But on his deathbed he bequeaths all his folios and sonnets, written in his own hand, to Ben Johnson, entrusting Johnson with their future proliferation. We return to the beginning of the film, with Johnson being tortured by Robert to divulge the whereabouts of these manuscripts. Johnson informs Robert that they have all perished in the flames when his men set fire to the Globe Theatre. But later, when Johnson returns to the smoldering embers of the Globe he finds that the box he had hidden Edward's manuscripts in has survived the blaze. Johnson vows to remain true to Edward's wishes. We return to the present day with Derek Jacobi providing a few final footnotes that round out our curiosity with more questions than answers. The lights come up and the audience departs the theatre, left to ponder all that has been set before them.
Anonymous is a striking and ambitiously mounted entertainment. John Orloff's screenplay is slow to start, and more than slightly confusing along the way, but it gathers both steam and our interests about midway through, tying up a lot of loose ends along the way that seem more fact than fiction before the final fade out. Stephen O. Gessler's art direction and Ann Foerster's cinematography create a brooding, murky palette where such grand illusions and even grander deceptions seem quite possible, if not entirely probably. Nils Bleeck's special effects and Sandra Balej digital visual effects seamlessly blend the real with the fanciful to resurrect an England previously made real only in period sketches and history books.
The acting also deserves our admiration. The cast is in very fine form; too many exceptional performances to single out individually herein. But the real standout is Rhys Ifans - previously remembered as the daft roommate of Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. Barely recognizable herein, his Edward is a tortured proud nobleman, a passionate man of conviction amongst mere players to his art. The film's success entirely rests on his shoulders and he proves himself more than capable of carrying off this complex and multifaceted character. In the final analysis, Anonymous may not be high art, but it is compelling viewing. It raises intelligent questions about Shakespeare's enduring art, in a medium not especially known today for either its artful intelligence or careful craftsmanship in the art of make believe. Anonymous attempts to do both and, more often than not, succeeds at offering us a little of each.
Sony's Blu-ray release captures the oppressive darkness of the cinematography with impressive results. This is a film whose backgrounds were largely conceived in a digital world employing a green screen and extensive matte work. The 1080p image is adept at bringing all this technical wizardry to life - gray and near monochromatic as it may be. The stylized color palette evokes part aged historical parchment and part graphic novel. It's difficult to assess color accuracy, as this is a highly stylized visual presentation. As such, flesh tones tend to be deliberately washed out. The general presentation is murky - but again, as it should be - or at least was in the theatre. The audio is a 7.1 DTS mix that is exceptionally aggressive. Dialogue is pronounced. Effects are well placed with good spatial spread across all channels. Extras include an informative audio commentary, deleted/extended scenes and three very brief featurettes that take us behind the making of the film and the enduring mystery that remains Will Shakespeare. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)