Review: ‘Anonymous’ explores Shakespeare's credibility

Posted Feb 8, 2012 by Sarah Gopaul
One half of 'Anonymous' takes aim at the authenticity of William Shakespeare; the other half is a period drama set in volatile Elizabethan England. Available on Blu-ray and DVD February 7, 2012.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
When it comes to William Shakespeare, most people love him, hate him or just plain don't understand him (which is where modern adaptations of his works come into play, but that's another post). Now it appears people can go as far as separating their dislike for the man from his plays - Anonymous suggests Shakespeare was not actually the author of any works that bear his name. And its argument definitely has some clout.
Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) is in failing health. Her most trusted advisor, Cecil (David Thewlis), is trying to convince her that the successor to the throne should be King James of Scotland. However, there is a small group supporting her unacknowledged son, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), as true heir to the crown. The Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is one of these. Saving Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), a playwright, from prison, he asks him to produce his plays under his own name and guard the identity of the real author. The first of these is "Julius Cesar." Unable to go through with the charade, an illiterate actor in whom Ben confided takes credit for the production - Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). The Earl uses the plays to gain the public's favour – but history shows his efforts were futile.
The logic to support the notion that Shakespeare was not the writer of his compositions is strong, though the evidence one way or the other is apparently lacking. The historical backdrop adds an extra sense of drama to the narrative; but outside of the Queen’s soft spot for drama the rest of the film in relation to the plays is unlikely to be historically accurate. However, they do elevate Shakespeare to acclaimed fame (that could believably last hundreds of years) and seduce audiences into whatever mood the author desired.
Rhys Ifans is virtually unrecognizable, turning in an excellent performance of passion and heartache. This is a serious side of Ifans so rarely seen on the screen, which is unfortunate because he proves he is a truly wonderful actor. Moreover, the continuity of appearance through his teen years to his offspring is somewhat uncanny, considering three actors are involved. Redgrave’s Queen is far less royal than audiences are accustomed, particularly in the final years of her reign. She displays a mix of vulnerability and tenacity that is unpredictable and yet unquestionable.
Much of director Roland Emmerich’s career has focused on the special effects blockbuster with big explosions and destroyed cities. However, many of these big screen spectacles have been balanced with decent character development. Emmerich’s attempt to go in the opposite direction with Anonymous is surprisingly successful.
Despite knowing the Earl of Oxford’s grand plan will not prevent the crowning of King James, the storytelling is impressive. The performances are excellent and the script, whether you agree with the hypothesis or not, is solid from beginning to end with great costuming and set design. Think whatever you like about Shakespeare, but this film is not faking it.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis
Special features include: commentary by director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff; deleted and extended scenes; “Who Is the Real William Shakespeare?”; “More Than Special Effects”; and “Speak The Speech…” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
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