Not content with destroying the world on a regular basis, director Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) takes time out from his usual big budget filmmaking to go period and attempt to obliterate the reputation of one William Shakespeare.
Anonymous, penned by John Orloff, and a noticeable change of pace for the director, is a fanciful tale of literary and political intrigue in Elizabethan England, one which seeks to cast doubt on the authenticity of Shakespeare as the author of masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet.
But this belief - that Shakespeare merely took credit for someone else's work - is nothing new; there is even a movement devoted to it. Anti-Stratfordians (or Oxfordians) have been espousing this belief for over a century, and even some great actors of the British stage and screen subscribe to the theory: Derek Jacobi for one.
Jacobi makes an appearance (as himself) at the beginning of the film, arriving for a one-man show where he posits this theory to the audience, and as he regales them, Emmerich (in a clever nod to Laurence Olivier's film version of Henry V) has the modern day theatre slip away, transporting us to the rainy streets of 1600's England.
Here we meet playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), on the run from the royal guard and in possession of some manuscripts. They're lost when the theatre Johnson hides out in is torched by the guards and he's hauled off to prison for interrogation.
And it's here Anonymous becomes convoluted as it flashes back, not once but twice, so that in the space of the film's opening 15 minutes we have four separate time frames (including Jacobi's). Thankfully, Emmerich reins this in and the film settles down, for the most part dividing its story between two narratives: that of the older and the younger Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere.
The older De Vere (played in a surprisingly dramatic turn by Rhys Ifans) engages Jonson to produce his plays and give credit to 'Anonymous', for the Earl is unable to use his own name given his position in the royal court and out of deference to his wife's family, namely his disapproving father-in-law, William Cecil (David Thewlis, unrecognisable save for his voice) and hunchbacked brother-in-law, Robert (Edward Hogg).
But that plan backfires when upon the first successful performance of De Vere's Henry V (proof-positive that the St. Crispin's Day speech is stirring in any context), the libidinous actor and drunkard William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) takes to the stage to claim authorship. Not content to simply deny Shakespeare his literary legacy, Anonymous sees fit to depict him as a lecherous tool.
The filmmakers also try their hand at an alternate history, suggesting that the younger Earl of Oxford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) not only enjoyed a romance with the young Queen Elizabeth I (played by Joely Richardson, and by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in later life) but that dalliance produced an illegitimate son (and not the "virgin" Queen's first, according to Orloff).
I'm thinking Anonymous is rife with historical inaccuracies. Then again, my knowledge of Elizabethan history extends to two Cate Blanchett-Shekar Kupar films, and I'll be interested to see, in the proposed third film of that saga (Elizabeth: The Olden Age?), if Shakespeare makes an appearance and if the Queen sires one or more bastards. Still, Redgrave makes for a magnificent monarch and you can see how Blanchett (and not Richardson, despite the family resemblance) might eventually evolve into such a woman.
But whether folly or blasphemy, Emmerich has had no trouble assembling an impressive cast (which incudes two Aussies: Xavier Samuel (as the Earl of Southampton) and Sam Reid (the Earl of Essex)) for Anonymous.
Emmerich's also gone to great lengths to make a good looking film, aided a great deal by the digital cinematography of first time d.o.p. Anna Foerster. Not only are the costumes (by Lisy Christl) and sets authentic (more so than the facts, at least), but the director has used his considerable expertise in visual effects to perfectly, and seamlessly, render England of the 1600s.
And for admirers of a good costume drama, fine acting and beautiful sets may be more than enough to entice them along to Anonymous. Literary and historical pedants, not to mention ardent admirers of William Shakespeare (whomever he may be), are best advised to go elsewhere.