I think it’s come to the point where theories on who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays are as fun as conspiracies about secret societies or lizard people. Most (hopefully) know that we really do know Shakespeare wrote his own plays, but the thought that it was all a great trick is simply too juicy to resist.
This does not mean that any film that explores this conceit will be entertaining. The documentary, Shakespeare: The Hidden Truth, tries wholeheartedly to convince you, but all it really does is show how frustrating it is arguing with people who don’t follow the rules of rational arguments. Anonymous (2011) is as sincere as the documentary, but due to our interpretation of genres it gets away with it. I do think that both films are infinitely more enjoyable if you’re familiar enough with Shakespeare to understand that this is an exercise in “what if” and not “the true story behind the myth.”
I have not looked into Roland Emmerich’s personal beliefs, but judging by this film, he does sincerely believe the authorship of the plays is in question. Let us put that fact aside, and look at Anonymous as though we are all in on the joke – because that is how I watched it, and how I enjoyed it.
The fact that this is an Emmerich film is frankly astounding. If you think you’re getting Independence Day in ruffles and codpieces, you are (probably thankfully) mistaken. Put aside the historical impossibilities, and simply embrace the melodrama. If you are any sort of fan of period films, then you will find something to like. There is intrigue, secrets, affairs and political machinations told across decades. Emmerich doesn’t allow you to fall asleep for a second. If you miss a single scene change you might miss the fact that you’ve jumped forty years back.
Once you get into the rhythm of things, everything evolves quite deliciously. In this version, it is the Earl of Oxford who is the real playwright, played with sincere passion and authority by Rhys Ifans. He is in love with Elizabeth the first, and writes subversive plays with clear parallels to current courtly life. A single title card might be all the audience gets, and perhaps a few quotes on stage, to understand its place in the story. The last title for example, King Lear, is never shown on a stage, and the audience must fill in the significance and possible parallels themselves. This makes for an engaging film for those few who love Shakespeare, and can watch a film dedicated to playing him for a drunken fool. I should probably be ashamed to admit I liked it. Despite the fact that the film’s main mission is to “convince” us that Shakespeare was a cover-up, it makes us do a lot of work ourselves.
There is a lot to pack in, and the flashes back and forth are exhausting at times. But that, I think, is part of the theme. We must piece together the tapestry of the Earl of Oxford’s life just as a Shakespeare-doubter pierces together the idea of the true author. I am reminded of the same gloom I recently saw in Wolf Hall, except the pace is bearable and the intrigue exciting. You mustn’t accept the historical reality presented (that goes for both). Anonymous is best enjoyed as a bit of fanfiction. You could argue it’s sad we have to belittle one of the world’s most famous writers just for entertainment. Then again, if anyone can take it…
If you want a film about a nobleman in love with a queen, hiding his identity while writing beautiful poetry, set in dark Elizabethan times with amazing costumes, and with all the drama that implies, Anonymous might be for you.
Dice roll: 4