Who really wrote the works of William Shakespeare? That nagging question has remained the subject of speculation among academics for centuries, with authorship of his poems and plays being alternately attributed to dozens of others, most notably, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, aka the 17th Earl of Oxford.
The primary reason the Bard of Avon has been shown such disrespect is because of his humble roots and the absence of evidence that he had much of a formal education. Consequently, his detractors argue that only another nobleman would have been capable of writing about royalty in such sophisticated fashion.
Anonymous revives the controversial notion that the Earl of Oxford served as Shakespeare’s ghostwriter, in spite of a plethora a problems with that generally-rejected theory, starting with the fact that when the Earl died in 1604, ten of the Bard’s plays were yet to be published. Nonetheless, provided you are willing to ignore an abundance of such historical inaccuracies, the picture proves to be a delightful whodunit.
The film is a bit of a departure for Roland Emmerich, whose name one ordinarily associates with bombastic summer blockbusters like Independence Day and Godzilla. Here, however, the German director tones down his act considerably in service of a multi-layered mystery given more to subtlety and insinuation than to special effects and pyrotechnics.
Narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi, Anonymous opens and closes on Broadway in present-day New York City. Otherwise, the plot revolves around the unlikely financial arrangement secretly struck between rebellious, aristocrat de Vere (Rhys Ifans) and alcoholic commoner Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) at a time when the former was a prolific, closet playwright and the latter, a struggling actor.
Thus, de Vere’s need for a surreptitious means of staging his incendiary, anti-establishment productions conveniently dovetails with the Bard’s desire for fame and fortune. But because Shakespeare is close to illiterate, the ruse is hard to hide from most of his contemporaries in the theater world.
Meanwhile, de Vere himself has a host of his own issues to deal with, starting with his not only being the illegitimate offspring of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) but possibly having fathered a child with his mom. Throw in a jealous wife (Antje Thiele) and an ambitious father-in-law (David Thewlis) with designs on the throne, and you’ve got all the fixings for a convoluted, costume drama of, dare I say it, Shakespearean proportions.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for violence and sexuality.
Running time: 130 minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures