You are the soul of the age… Undeniable perfection that plagued my soul.
Given that director Roland Emmerich is more famous for blowing up The White House and other cultural landmarks, the combination of his aesthetics to a drama – the theory that the Earl of Oxford penned Shakespeare’s plays – is initially off-putting. Regardless of whether you believe the theory has a grain of truth, Emmerich turns in a story that’s engaging and far smarter than his previous work would suggest, making Anonymous a film that’s more entertaining than it has any reason to be.
Set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st, the film actually begins in modern-day New York theatre with Derek Jacobi (as himself) suggesting there’s more to Shakespeare and his works that meets the eye. The hint of theatricality in this moment presents the rest of the film with a larger-than-life, can’t-possibly-be-true sort of vibe; a story that’s a bit like the BBC’s The Tudors: full of machinations, sedition and power struggles that, again, you wouldn’t normally expect from the ‘Master of Disaster’ Emmerich.
Anonymous gives itself a few problems however. The script by Josh Orloff initially sets up three strands, spread over several decades flitting between each one and causing a momentary pause as you remember which period you’re in and who, exactly, is plotting what. It soon congeals into something comprehensible and from then on the film acts as a sort of ‘what-if?’ or alternative timeline, building an interesting story that turns Shakespeare’s prose into the kind of language that could influence a population and incite a war. The power of the Shakespeare/Oxford’s written word is aligned with Emmerich’s visual grip, attempting to persuade the viewer to at least question The Bard’s eminence.
It’s that theatricality that probably makes the film a little less effective, sensationalising fictional moments that take away from the interesting ideas embedded into Orloff’s script (even if, in true Shakespeare fashion, its full of carnal desires and twists). Still, the performances are very good, notably Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson (in a piece of spot-on casting) as both the old and young Queen Elizabeth: a vain, needy and temperamental monarch who thinks with her heart rather than her head. Rhys Ifans is also particularly good as Edward de Vere, the man the film posits as being the writer of Shakespeare’s texts.
So Anonymous is better than you would think, not really deserving of the battering critics dished out to it and functioning as one of Emmerich’s more interesting and under-appreciated films.