Film Review: Anonymous (2011)

“Let me offer you a different story”

Any film that contains someone being dragged to the theatre saying “there won’t be puppets will there?” is bound to be a winner with me. And if that film has also courted controversy then my interest is bound to be piqued. But the publicity campaign against Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous was so vociferous that it disappeared from cinemas before I got the chance to see it and so I had to wait for it to emerge on DVD. Why so controversial? Emmerich’s (better known for loud blockbusters like Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow) film is based on the premise that the 17th Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere was in fact the true author of the works normally attributed to Shakespeare. Thus a great outcry was launched, by the people and scholars for whom this is the biggest deal, and the film largely scuppered.

Which ultimately is a shame, as I found it to be rather an enjoyable film and somewhat perversely, the authorship question is just one of many strands of story in what turns out to be a historical political thriller, mainly based around the succession to the throne as Elizabeth I’s reign has produced no (legitimate) heirs. That one of the key players in her court just happens to be a playwright on the sly, who is forced to use a surrogate by the name of William to get his plays staged, is taken as a given here and it makes for an entertaining ‘what if’ scenario.

And that’s the key, it’s entertainment. The marketing was misjudged in focusing on the authorship debate (the tag line ‘Was Shakespeare a fraud?’ didn’t help) as the publicity it whipped up stirred academics from all over the place with their theories and conjectures and certitudes, but the effect was to leave the film dead in the water. By deliberately provoking as contentious a subject matter as this (which people evidently take deadly seriously, perhaps too much so), the assumption seems to be that the film is an academic debate which is ‘wrong’. Yet quite why people were concerned about credibility when it comes to an Emmerich film  I do not know – I mean, in The Day After Tomorrow (which I LOVE) people stop the advance of a new Ice Age by shutting the door on it…

I am aware that one of the best ways to rile people is to tell them to chill, but man, you guys shouldn’t take it all so seriously 😉 There’s lots of fun to be had in here, honest. The film really is awash with great theatrical spots: some are ‘blink and miss ’em’, like Henry Lloyd Hughes’ bear baiter and Jasper Britton’s Pope, others are a bit more sustained like Trystan Gravelle’s Christopher Marlowe and James Clyde’s James I. The cumulative effect really is one of rather good quality, which may surprise anyone who has seen any of Emmerich’s previous films!

With Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson playing Elizabeth I at different ages pulled between friend and foe yet a canny negotiator and flaming strumpet with it, Mark Rylance declaiming (rather predictably) on the Globe stage as an actor and Derek Jacobi as a bizarre modern-day narrator (recalling his turn in Branagh’s Henry V if anything), the casting could even be considered heavyweight. And they’ve largely got it spot on here. David Thewlis and Edward Hogg glower brilliantly as Cecils older and younger, Sebastian Armesto (last seen naked on the NT stage) makes an appealing Ben Jonson and Rafe Spall’s raffish, illiterate Shakespeare is rather good fun.

And at the centre of it all, Rhys Ifans gives an excellent performance as the Earl of Oxford, a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, whose position as a courtier embroiled in dynastic struggles around the succession means he can never reveal himself as the true playwright that he is. The scenes as he watches his plays being rapturously received at the Globe whilst someone else takes the credit for them are heartbreaking, his battles against the scheming Cecils are powerfully fought, he makes for a great protagonist.   

People who know me will see the deep irony in me making allowances for a film which bends historical events to its whim (in a tribute to Shakespeare’s own rewriting of history, as a rather witty explanation put it) – I’ve had countless pub debates about how much I hate it when films do that, the ending of Braveheart being the one which annoys me most. But somehow Anonymous rather won me over: maybe it was the low expectations, maybe it was partly the determination to swim against the tide, maybe it was just the number of people I’ve seen on the stage before, or maybe it’s not that bad a film!

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