ANONYMOUS has a great many things going for it. A rich and suitably literate script by John Orloff. A director, Roland Emmerich, with a flair for the dramatic that meshes well with the intrigues of Elizabethan England. A special effects budget that allows the screen to be filled with vast panoramas of 16th-century London, as well as the myriad period details that bring that time to convincing life. A cast of supporting players that are such stuff as dreams are made on. What it lacks is a convincing leading man, Rhys Ifans, in the central role. Its enough to almost sink the enterprise while also breaking the hearts of cinephiles and fans of the whole who wrote Shakespeare question.
The film travels back and forth through time as it sides with the Oxfordians in that debate, as in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Ifans), a man born in the center of power, but with the heart and soul of a poet rather than a statesman. Frittering away both his fortune and his time with writing plays and poems for the amusement of the royal court, and in particular, Elizabeth I, the not-so-virgin queen, he discovers almost by chance that there is a larger, more satisfying audience to be had in public theaters. He hatches a scheme to have his work performed there by approaching a good, but not brilliant, playwright, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), to be his surrogate, putting Jonsons name to Oxfords plays, with the theater manager and public being none the wiser. There are two reasons for this: a nobleman working in commercial theater was simply not done, and the political subtexts with which Oxford imbues his plays would get him into deep trouble with his sanctimonious Puritan father-in-law, William Cecil (David Thewliss), and target of at least one subtext. A bold if questionable move considering Cecil is first minister to the queen and the most powerful man in the realm. The plan goes awry when Jonsons ego gets in the way, and Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), an actor who can barely read, Shakespeare swoops in to take the credit when the first play to hit the public boards is a hit.
Elizabethan England is vivid, from the mud and squalor of an actors life to the splendor of court where Glorianna reigns with calculated opulence. The times were raucous and dangerous, with a regime that answered to no one and a prosperity that allowed for a comfortable middle class as long as it kept its collective mouth shut. A play is shut down mid-performance, and its author arrested for sedition, at one point. This was a time when words were dangerous things. Very dangerous things, and by showing the common folk enthralled and then swayed to action by watching the exploits of their betters, noble and not, the concept of danger takes on a meaning aimed squarely at the seat of power as well.
Ifans, with is huge sad eyes, has the gravity and the dignity of a great mind, but there is nothing in him as the older Oxford to suggest the wit or the ribald temper to be found in the plays. He is, instead, the sort of person that sucks all the life out of a room when he enters. The younger Oxford, played by Jamie Campbell Bower, has the fire to be the soul of the age and the queens lover by whom he begets one of her many bastards. There is something to be said for a lifetime of being ground down by the family he was blackmailed into joining, who equate art with sin, having a suffocating and demoralizing effect on Oxford, but Ifans becomes the leaden centerpiece to an otherwise vibrant effort. Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, sparkle as both the older and younger Elizabeth, and they have more than their uncanny physical resemblance, they both have the same bottomless capacity for delight, though the headstrong intelligence of Richardson has been tempered in Redgrave into a sly determination before Elizabeth gets a bit dotty in her dotage. Thewlis is subtle but precise, quietly riveting as he homes in on both Cecils machinations, political and personal, and his complicated loyalties, while Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil, heir to the his fathers position but not his affection, is deliciously petulant and spiteful, child (Isaiah Michalski) and man. Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle), one of the other candidates for authorship of the Shakespeare canon, and one with a fanatical following, also appears, rendered with mordant humor and an air of mystery, as does Shakespeare himself. And it is, ironically, Shakespeare who lights up the screen most brightly. Spall preens with the narcissists elan of a confirmed ham, all ego and hot air with nary a coherent thought in his otherwise empty head save getting lucky with the ladies, landing the choicest roles in order to do so, and making as much money as he can. Not as clever as he thinks he is, he is the object of general if unnoticed ridicule, plunging his fingers into ink to look the part of a writer, and buying a coat-of-arms that impresses no one but himself, the which he misses entirely. (For more about Marlowe’s advocates, click through to MUCH ADO ABOUT SOMETHING.)
Orloff has done an excellent job of fitting the known facts to the thesis on offer, as well as paring down the convoluted history of the Essex Rebellion and the accession of James I into manageable, but not slapdash, snippets. There is no bogging down in the minutiae of Oxfords claim to authorship, either, though parallels with the de Veres life and incidents in the plays is shown, and a prologue (how Shakesperean!) delivered by Derek Jacobi cites the highlights of the case, offering just enough to pique the curiosity of the audience, before opening up the modern stage on which he stands to the action of the story.
ANYONYMOUS glories in the plots and counterplots that drive politics of any age, making those specific to Shakespeares time, and to Shakespeare himself, whomever he might have been. As historical entertainment, it is bracing in its twists and turns. As a tribute to the power of words and the beauty of language in the hands of a genius, it is superb.