Anonymous is a lively historical romp of a film, almost calculated to annoy fans of Shakespeare and the Cecil family. Obviously, the premise on which it is based – that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford wrote the plays we and poems we attribute to Shakespeare – is fairly daft and the chronology is distinctly shaky – the Earl writing viable stage plays for years before he ever got a chance to see whether his stagecraft was effective for audiences including, presumably, all those late plays that surfaced after his death with their very different language. The theatrical background is generally well-handled, including the central figure of Ben Jonson plus the other writers of the age. There is an intriguing hint about how and why Marlowe came to be killed in a tavern brawl although this obviously gets in the way of constructing a convincing chronology for the film, given that he died in 1593.
Of course, it is Shakespeare himself who suffers most – depicted as a social-climbing, graceless, blackmailing oaf who can read but cannot write. The Cecils also suffer, especially Robert who is depicted as a malignant, paranoid hunchback…along the lines of “Shakespeare’s” Richard III. This is perhaps the weakest aspect of the film – the way it tries to draw parallels between the Cecils and the plays. The Oxfordians make mention of the parallels between Burleigh and Polonius and in this film, the actor is kitted out exactly like Burleigh, but that is very thin evidence. Any elderly advisor could be seen in that way. Robert as Richard III is amusing but again hard to accept. Since the play is put on as a one-off exercise to foment the appearance of a popular revolt that Essex can be seen to quell as a demonstration of his real loyalty to the Queen, it fails on all counts. For this to be convincing the play would have to be totally unknown in 1601, the date of Essex’s failed “revolt”. The play was actually published in 1597 and subsequently reprinted. This suggests that it had been performed often enough for people to want to own the text.
The production is a mass of detail. Oxford’s study is stuffed full of curiosities – stuffed animals, scientific instruments, books and other objects. Presumably this is to heighten the contrast between this sensitive, artistic soul and those rigidly puritanical Cecils. Oxford probably was a bit of an antiquarian but the degree of clutter is a little too much. The CGI team worked overtime to recreate things such as old London Bridge and also a bizarre funeral cortège for Queen Elizabeth along the frozen Thames – complete with galleon frozen into the ice. The master shots of this old London are not so much realistic as something you would see in illustrations to children’s tales – it reminded me of an illustration for Dick Whittington that I saw as a child. Amidst all the clutter, Rhys Ifans gives a sensitive performance as the hyper-aesthetic Oxford.
The director Roland Emmerich is obviously fond of having a crowded screen. The script is more about broad strokes of plot set in a mass of period detail. It does not have an emotional core, instead there are several strands of interest that weave in and out of each other. Oxford, for some reason, likes to write plays and is not allowed to have them performed under his name. That is the major strand, which wraps in Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe etc. Then there is the thread of the Cecils and their influence over both Elizabeth and Oxford. Then there is Oxford’s interest in Southampton, which brings in the link with the Earl of Essex. The script knits the threads together but it does not create any real drama or tension. There is no psychological insight, no emotional tensions beyond the mutual suspicions of Oxford and those members of the Cecil family who have knitted their lives into his as former guardians, childhood colleagues, and finally relations-in-law. An enjoyable romp – no more but no less.