Set in the political snake-pit of Elizabethan England, Columbia Pictures' new thriller Anonymous speculates on an issue that has for centuries intrigued academics and brilliant minds such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Sigmund Freud, namely: who actually created the body of work credited to William Shakespeare?
Experts have debated, books have been written, and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of the most renowned works in English literature. “Anonymous” poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when scandalous political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles lusting for the power of the throne were brought to light in the most unlikely of places: the London stage.
To be shown soon exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas (Glorietta 4, Greenbelt 3 and Trinoma), “Anonymous” stars Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Jamie Campbell Bower, and Derek Jacobi. The film is directed by Roland Emmerich from the script by John Orloff.
It might not seem that Roland Emmerich – best known as the director of the epic blockbusters “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012” – would necessarily choose as his next project a story set in Elizabethan England. However, for nearly ten years, he has wanted to make a film with the Shakespeare authorship question as a backdrop – a yearning that is fulfilled with “Anonymous.”
Screenwriter John Orloff says he had been fascinated by the Shakespeare authorship question since first learning about the controversy as a 25-year-old graduate student 20 years ago. “My first thought was, ‘Why had no one told me this?!’” he says. “My second thought was that this would make a fantastic film. It had everything – murder, sex, lies, betrayal – truly the stuff of Shakespearean drama.”
In writing that story, Orloff centered around the idea of two writers – Shakespeare, the front man, and the true writer, behind the curtain. “Ben Jonson wrote the introduction to the first folio, the first official published plays of Shakespeare – he writes this beautiful, beautiful poem dedicated to Shakespeare who by that point, had been dead for several years. But if you read other Jonson works, some shorter poems or some of his plays, he’s not quite so laudatory of Shakespeare and his poems actually make fun of him and are very angry with him. It made me think that Jonson was talking about two different people – one, the true poet, and the other, a fraud.”
Emmerich was immediately receptive to Orloff’s idea – and the director had some big ideas that he felt the story could support. “The script is very much about the relationship between Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and Edward De Vere – that is very much the heart of the movie – but I felt it just needed a little more than that. I asked myself, ‘What was the most important thing in that era?’ and it was clearly succession” – the question of who would follow the heirless Elizabeth on the throne.
“I had a little story about art and jealousy,” says Orloff, “and with that suggestion, Roland wanted to propel the script into a whole new dimension of dramatic possibility.”
“What intrigued me was not just the idea that William Shakespeare did not write the plays,” says Emmerich. “That spark opened up all sorts of avenues for the story, to look at the creative fire in people and to explore the relationship between art and politics – is the pen truly mightier than the sword?”
Tackling a subject that is so widely discussed and documented proved rather tricky for Orloff in the early stages of his script writing. He says, “Writing something that is based on non-fiction and historical material simply has to find a way to balance between fact and drama,” says Orloff. “We tried as much as possible to keep to historical facts – and I’m very proud of how accurate it is, as long as you take the conceit that the movie portrays DeVere as the writer of the works and not William Shakespeare. Not everyone’s going to agree with that!”
“Roland has such a feel for the exciting topics that get people out of their chairs,” says producer Kirstin Winkler. “I certainly don’t think that the film is trying to dictate his story as the truth; it’s just one take on the authorship question, telling one tale.”
That said, Winkler goes on that she expects Emmerich’s film to be controversial. “There is quite a radical group of Stratfordians out there who feel very strongly about preserving the image of Shakespeare as the writer of the plays and sonnets,” she says.
But controversy aside, actor David Thewlis says that the film works well simply as a story. “No matter what you believe, it’s a great story,” he says. “Roland is very passionate about authorship question and he wants to put it to a wider audience. He is a very mischievous man, but I think he’s been rather daring to do this story – he likes to push people’s buttons.”