Movie Review for Anonymous

Alluring Untruth


Drama | PG
Columbia Pictures
Anonymous was created to further the cause of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship. It represents the beliefs of a fringe group of scholars who believe that Shakespeare was merely a front and that his works were actually authored by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. It is a theory that has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked over the last few decades, and the movie does little to raise its status. It is a lavish spectacle that is reasonably entertaining, but its insistence that it is presenting the truth creates a few problems.

The movie takes place near the end of the 16th century, with England on the verge of a crisis as an aging Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) seems likely to die without leaving any heirs. Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), Earl of Oxford, gets caught up in the conflict between two factions attempting to name a successor. De Vere realizes that theater, the most popular entertainment of the time, could be used as a tool to influence the English people. De Vere has had a long love for writing, but his position prevents him from ever publishing his work. And so he approaches the playwright Ben Jonson to serve as a surrogate for him in the theater. Jonson refuses, but a young actor named William Shakespeare takes up the offer. De Vere witnesses his words influence the mob, all the while reliving the pain that inspired those words.

The movie spins a compelling yarn; one filled with intrigue, politicking, secrets, lies and just a hint of incest. It’s a fantastic story, but so little of it is true. Normally it wouldn’t be that big of a problem. Historical accuracy tends to be less important in cinema than thematic relevance. But the film is trying to make a case for a rather controversial theory. Its manipulation of history to make that case just doesn’t help its cause. Some artistic license might have been forgiven, but the film strays too far from the truth to ever be convincing. It portrays Shakespeare as a complete buffoon who even goes as far as to (spoiler alert) murder fellow playwright Kit Marlowe.

It’s a problematic proposition. Marlowe was dead well before the time period that the movie takes in, and attributing his death to Shakespeare is more than a little strange. The film messes around with stray historical details and delivers a conspiracy theory that’s often quite ludicrous. To be fair, this makes for fairly entertaining speculation, but the movie presents itself as the logical truth. The dichotomy between intention and output makes the experience just a little uncomfortable.

The film is certainly well made. Roland Emmerich applies the same bombast to the movie as he does to any blockbuster. Period films about Shakespeare don’t tend to be thought of as exciting, but this movie moves with plenty of intent, and the scale of the production is pretty admirable. The acting is carried out with the same sense of bombast, but it’s balanced out with a few subtle details in the performances. Rhys Ifans is as good as he’s ever been as de Vere, finding deep levels of humanity beneath the character’s aristocratic veneer. Vanessa Redgrave is predictably amazing as the Queen, playing out an entire life of regrets in every scene she’s in.

One suspects that enjoyment of Anonymous is entirely dependent on a person’s familiarity with Shakespeare. This is special case in that familiarity has an inverse relationship with enjoyment. The more you know about Shakespeare, the more the film seems just utterly ridiculous and devoid of any merit in its arguments. Taken apart from that context, it’s a well made film with strong performances and a flair for big, cinematic moments. If only this skill was applied to a more worthwhile cause.

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