Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
We all know that William Shakespeare is arguably the best playwright to have ever lived, having given us such masterpieces as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth,” but what if everything we’ve been told about him was a lie? This has been a theory that has fascinated scholars for ages, particularly for those who cannot believe that a man of Shakespeare’s station could have written such amazing poetry. “Anonymous” puts forth an interesting version of events that turns history on its head.
The story revolves around Edward, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), a man of high station who has written plays, but can’t have them performed because he believes that men of his high rank do not write plays. This is why he recruits Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), another playwright of the day, to take credit for the plays. However, Jonson is unsure of this arrangement and decides to hide the authorship of the first play, “Henry V”. To his surprise, the play is a massive hit with the crowd, but before he can do anything about it, an acquaintance of Jonson’s, actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), takes credit, thereby entering himself into an arrangement with Jonson, who keeps the Earl of Oxford’s name a secret.
Woven into this story are flashbacks of Edward when he was a young man having a relationship with Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) and another story that deals with the succession to the English throne in the present day. Many are in favor of James, a Scotsman, becoming King upon the death of Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) while others support the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) including a powerful nobleman, William Cecil (David Thewlis), and his son, Robert (Edward Hogg). All three of these stories intertwine into a fascinating tale of political intrigue.
At first, the structure of “Anonymous” may seem a bit disorienting as it jumps back and forth between the two time periods and between the different stories, but once you familiarize yourself with the characters, this becomes quite an intriguing story, whether you believe in the theory or not. The film doesn’t really seem to be pressing you to do so, but rather just wants to present an interesting possibility, a story based entirely on a “What if?” scenario.
The wonderful screenplay, written by John Orloff (“A Mighty Heart”), turns Shakespeare into the least likely of men to have written the great plays that many of us have read. He’s a drunken womanizer who, as we’re told, cannot even form his letters, and yet, no one but Jonson bothers to put it to him to actually write something down on paper in public. Luckily for Shakespeare, there’s no ink available at the time.
The film also incorporates several famous scenes from selected plays that show just how powerful this type of entertainment could be at the time. Take the performance of “Henry V” for example. During Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, the audience becomes so immersed in the words that they begin to reach out for him and openly shout out condemnations of the French.
Another performance, this time of “Hamlet,” has the audience so engrossed with Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be speech that they don’t budge an inch when it begins to rain heavily upon them in the open space of the theater. When the opening monologue of “Richard III” is performed later on, this is all it takes to get the crowd riled up against Robert Cecil, himself a hunchback, just like Richard is portrayed in the play.
“Anonymous” is filled with notable performances, particularly from Ifans, who gives Edward the calm and collected demeanor of a nobleman, but also a touch of slyness in his ability to write these plays and have them performed under someone else’s name. Spall delivers just the kind of performance of Shakespeare the film needs to argue its point about how he couldn’t have written these plays due to his position. Many others, such as Sebastian Armesto, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Reid, and David Thewlis, deserve credit for their performances that help bring Orloff’s screenplay, with its multiple storylines, to life.
The film is perhaps a bit too long, running a little over two hours. The storyline revealing how Edward had an affair with the young Queen felt like it was dragging the film a bit, but it quickly picks back up and remains engaging throughout the vast majority of its runtime. Also, there are some plot points near the end of the film involving certain relations that seemed kind of silly, but they don’t end up affecting it too much.
You may be surprised to learn that this film comes from the master of disaster, Roland Emmerich, whose filmography includes having destroyed major cities in movies such as “2012,” “Independence Day,” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” Here, he completely switches gears and delivers a film that is almost fully dependent on words instead of action, as opposed to his inclination to always do it the other way around. It may be one of the signs of the apocalypse, but thanks to a well-written screenplay, spot-on performances, and a fantastic production design, Emmerich has finally made a great film. 3.5/4 stars.