Set in the political snake-pit of Elizabethan England, Anonymous speculates on an issue that has for centuries intrigued academics and brilliant minds such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Sigmund Freud, namely: who actually created the body of work credited to William Shakespeare? Experts have debated, books have been written, and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of the most renowned works in English literature. Anonymous poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when scandalous political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles lusting for the power of the throne were brought to light in the most unlikely of places: the London stage.
The big debate that has always raged in both literary and theatrical circles about Shakespeare is whether or not he actually wrote everything that bears his name. The newest film from director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), called Anonymous, deals with one of the theories as to who Shakespeare really was, and, more importantly, who he wasn't.
Anonymous follows Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans from Hannibal Rising), who has spent his entire life composing plays but, because of his puritan upbringing, must do his writing in secret. He makes a deal with a young playwright named Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) to have his plays performed with Jonson's name attached as the writer. Feeling unethical about the deal, Jonson instead puts the plays on with the writer listed as "anonymous," and the first one, Henry V, is a huge success. The audience starts cheering for the playwright to come forward, and an unknown actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall from "Pete Versus Life") seizes the opportunity to take credit. Edward and Ben are forced to strike a deal with Shakespeare to keep their secret from Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and her chief advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis, Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter movies) in order to preserve Edward's fortune, possible claim to the throne of England, and, ultimately, their lives. What they find out is that the Queen has secrets of her own that she works very hard to keep.
Anonymous has all of the flash and pageantry of Emmerich's previous films without destroying the world. The film is a thinly veiled political thriller set in Elizabethan England. Written by John Orloff (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole), the screenplay is much more than just the story of who wrote Shakespeare's plays. It is a story of oppression, intrigue and deceit. The bulk of the story takes place at the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, when seemingly everyone in England thought that they had a legitimate claim to the throne. No one trusts anyone else, and Edward and Ben (who barely trust each other) are forced to put their faith in Shakespeare. Told partially through flashbacks, the plot jumps around a bit time-wise, which is a little confusing in the beginning until it becomes clear who is who in the past and present. The Queen and Edward have a long, torrid history, and it all comes together organically, if not a little shockingly. The twists and turns of the betrayals and double-crosses will keep even the most alert viewers guessing, and that's what makes Anonymous such an entertaining movie. The film is a success on every level - it's beautifully shot, well written and flawlessly acted - and the only material destruction that occurs is the burning of a theater.
The acting in Anonymous is absolutely first-rate. The cast that has been assembled is remarkable, especially with the tricky dialect of Elizabethan England. Although everyone is great, there are two characters that stand out above the rest. Since the events of Anonymous take place over the course of about 40 years, the main characters of the Queen and Edward are played by two actors each, one younger and one older. The young Queen Elizabeth is played by Joely Richardson (Vanessa Redgrave's real daughter, and a regular on "Nip/Tuck"), and the transformation from Richardson's young Elizabeth to Redgrave's old is so seamless, sometimes it seems that Redgrave is actually Richardson in age makeup. The same goes for the character of Edward; the young Earl of Oxford is played by Jamie Campbell Bower (Caius from the Twilight movies), and he grows into Rhys Ifans' old Earl of Oxford extremely well, and the audience has no trouble believing that years have passed and the man is the same.
Whenever a period piece is produced, the filmmakers must pay excruciating attention to details to be sure everything is as authentic as possible. Every piece in Anonymous is in place, and the film is breathtaking because of it. From the fertile hedge maze where Edwards practices his fencing to the grimy, dim pub where Ben Jonson and his writer buddies kill time, from the snow covered streets of the village to the perfect replica of the Globe Theater, the painstaking consideration for authenticity makes Anonymous a beautiful film on an aesthetic level as well as an artistic one.
Drama, Period Piece
October 28, 2011