Shakespeare or not Shakespeare — that’s been a roiling, unsettling question among generations of literary scholars investigating the true authorship of the plays and poems typically attributed to the Bard. “Not” is unequivocally the answer in “Anonymous,” a handsomely staged and decidedly straight-ahead costume drama under Roland Emmerich’s nearly CGI-free direction that insists that our “Shakespeare” is actually Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Pic is likely to encounter commercial headwinds faced by any historical movie, but may get a lift from press accounts of inevitable controversy when classicists and others protest.
The so-called “Oxfordian theory” propounded in “Anonymous,” that Oxford actually wrote the opus we know as Shakespeare’s, has been circulating for some 90 years but remains a distinctly minority view, aggressively promoted and more frequently debunked. Indeed, one can view “Anonymous” is as an illustrated argument of the theory, pointing out several ways in which Oxford’s life matched events and details alluded to or directly referenced in several Shakespearean plays, particularly “Hamlet.”
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From a cultural standpoint, the film has received the implicit endorsement of two of the world’s most notable Shakespearean actors and directors: Derek Jacobi, first seen at the film’s start dashing into a Broadway theater to deliver the prologue and epilogue of a play titled “Anonymous”; and Mark Rylance, seen here as a lowly actor superbly performing several roles on the Globe stage, such as Richard III. Their participation, along with that of Vanessa Redgrave in a deeply felt performance as an aged and vexed Queen Elizabeth I, lend the movie bona fides that will make the ongoing debate more interesting.
The film as a whole isn’t quite as interesting, though it is noteworthy that action specialist Emmerich has clearly decided to change course here from anything he’s previously made. Although this is primarily a writer’s film, with John Orloff’s screenplay (and dialogue) placed front and center, “Anonymous” surprises with how classical, staid and traditional Emmerich’s mise-en-scene is, never straying from tried-and-true costumer standards.
Another playwright, the unlucky Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), is captured by royal troops, who torch the Globe and, apparently with it, an important manuscript Jonson has been hiding. He’s tortured by Elizabeth’s aide, the hunchbacked Puritan official Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), who demands to know if Oxford actually wrote the plays attributed to reputedly illiterate Globe actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall).
Five years earlier, Oxford (Rhys Ifans) attends Globe performances, and behind the scenes discusses with the younger Earl of Essex (Sebastian Reid) the possibility of the crown being usurped by the hated Cecils, including Robert and his domineering father, William (David Thewlis).
The remainder of Orloff’s script shifts between the “present” Elizabethan time period and a gentler past when young Elizabeth (an ideally cast and effective Joely Richardson) takes great pleasure in the delightful plays by the young Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower), such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” While Oxford is clearly a gifted poet and author, he’s under the thumb of William, a strict Puritan who considers art and poetry to be the work of the devil. Elizabeth, though a supporter of the arts, is compelled to have the Cecils at her side for their connections to money, power and influence.
Pic strains under the constant switches in time signature, which are sometimes dramatically effective and revealing of character, and other times overworked and fussy. There are even occasions when inattentive viewers may not immediately grasp which part of the Elizabethan era is being depicted, so quick and constant are some of the temporal changes.
The past, however, helps explain the present, which is that Oxford — whose younger self carried on a torrid romance with the Queen, and even, the film speculates, fathered her child — finds himself in an uphill battle to convince Elizabeth that Robert is poisoning the aged Queen’s mind. Meanwhile, a parallel narrative of Jonson and Shakespeare’s running battle over public claim of the plays’ authorship proves tiresome even as it veers close to comedy.
The Shakespeare-Jonson imbroglio seems superfluous to everything affecting Oxford, partly because Ifans’ command of his scenes — and of the film — presents convincing evidence he is “Shakespeare,” sometimes via a mere glint of the eye or cock of the head. The actor builds his performance on details, such as the way he fondles his precious manuscripts, which lend the “Oxfordian theory” an unexpectedly human dimension.
Redgrave (recently in “Coriolanus”) veritably glows in most of her scenes as an Elizabeth who continues to wield extraordinary independent (and Protestant) power in a Catholic-dominated Europe, but who knows her days are drawing short. When her Queen nears death, the actor suggests that the light is literally fading in her eyes.
The supporting cast is delicious, including Hogg as a disturbingly chalky Robert, Armesto as a stressed and insecure Jonson and Thewlis as a crafty old William under lots of makeup. Unfortunately hammy and counterproductive, Spall’s Shakespeare is often so ridiculous that the “Stratfordians” (proponents of Shakespeare being the actual author) will feel doubly insulted here. Jacobi makes a distinctly sharp impression as the introducer.
Pic displays the production values of work done at Germany’s Studio Babelsberg by an almost entirely Teuton crew. Especially of note is Sebastian Krawinkel’s ambitious and gorgeous production design, ranging from moody Royal court settings and manor house interiors to a full-blown rendering of the Globe, which is shown in unprecedented detail. Anna J. Foerster’s widescreen lensing is intensely burnished and elegant; an ordinary score by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser isn’t up to the same standard.