Intrigue and drama abound in Elizabethan England when the Earl of Oxford writes a series of rabble rousing plays attributed to a man called William Shakespeare.
It’s a controversial theory but one held dear by a bunch of people called the ‘Oxfordians’; that Shakespeare did not in fact write those famous 37 plays that bear his name but a nobleman called Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Those who believe that the author was in fact the famous playwright from Stratford-Upon-Avon are driven totally wild by the very suggestion. And those ‘Stradfordians’ came out in violent opposition to Anonymous, a film that dramatises the Oxfordian stance. And while the plot may be far fetched, some might even say immoral, it makes for a bloody good yarn.
Rhys Ifans plays the anonymous aristocratic playwright Edward de Vere, who witnesses the closure by the government of so called ‘seditious’ yet highly popular plays and decides to dust a few off himself. His motive? To turn the people against the proposed successor to Queen Elizabeth 1 and suggest another contender, namely The Earl of Essex. In order to realise his scheme, Edward seeks out comic playwright Ben Jonson to produce the plays under his name but Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is reluctant to take credit. This is where an illiterate actor named Shakespeare steps in and is showered with praise. Rafe Spall gives an almost sacrilegious performance as the man revered the world over for his words in iambic pentameter but one perfectly in line with this historically dubious theory.
Screenwriter John Orloff contrives a scenario in which the nine year-old Edward performs his play A Mid Summer Night’s Dream in front of a young Queen Elizabeth, played by Joely Richardson, whose mother Vanessa Redgrave takes on the part of the Virgin Queen in later years. But far from being the chaste monarch she was said to be, this Elizabeth is lusty and promiscuous. She has several bastard sons and eagerly takes the Earl of Oxford to her bed. In one memorable scene, the Queen is also seen loosening her stays while watching a private performance of that old bodice ripper Hamlet.
This is a real departure for German-born director Roland Emmerich who brought us such end-of-the-world catastrophe films as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day. But by transposing those same green screen technologies on to soundstages in Germany, he conjures up a tangible Elizabethan setting for his actors to strut and fret their hour or so upon. Performances at the Rose and Globe theatres in particular are faithfully recreated to give a real sense of what it must’ve been like to see those immortal plays for the very first time.
I found this film fascinating, not just because of its radical proposition and its wonderfully convincing performances but because of the way it evokes the period. The production design by Sebastian Trawinkle and costumes by Lisy Christl are faultless as is Anna Foerster’s cinematography, all of them conspiring to create a 16th century London throbbing with life both down on the streets and in the upper echelons of court.
It may be pure fantasy, but it’s a highly entertaining one.Get anonymous