In Act 2 of Hamlet, His Mopiness comments: “The play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” The “thing” off course being the proof that his uncle Claudius, the King, murdered his father, the former king. So Hamlet turns playwright, peppering his play with references to regicide, then sits back to watch as Claudius’ reaction damns him.
While not quite Hamlet, Roland Emmerich, Teutonic King of the Blockbuster, has fashioned his own rip-roaring tale of a nobleman turning playwright for political ends with Anonymous, an Elizabethan conspiracy thriller that places the Bard’s works at the heart of a plot to seize the throne and breathes new life into the frankly preposterous fringe theory that Shakespeare was a fraud.
It’s 1598 and England is in turmoil. The elderly Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) is in the twilight of her reign and refuses to name her successor. As her duplicitous advisors, William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his hunchback son Robert (Edward Hogg, boo, hiss), scheme to put James VI of Scotland (son of her great enemy Mary, Queen of Scots) on the throne, Elizabeth’s former lover the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans), hatches his own plan to secure the throne for Elizabeth’s bastard son, the Earl of Essex (Sebastian Reid). Still with me?
To do this, he enlists the aid of poet and playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) whose rabble-rousing plays have already attracted the attention of Cecil’s secret police. A man who believes “All art is political! Otherwise it would just be decoration!” Oxford intends Johnson to act as a front man; to stage Oxford’s politically-themed plays under his own name in an attempt to manipulate public opinion in Essex’s favour, thus weakening the Cecils. Johnson however is reluctant to take credit for Oxford’s work and instead a swaggering, illiterate actor snatches the limelight, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall).
As Shakespeare becomes the most feted ‘writer’ in all of Christendom and Oxford is haunted by memories of his youthful love affair with the young Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), the various plots and political intrigues coalesce, spiralling towards Essex’s ill-fated, abortive coup attempt and the revelation of painful, guilty secrets.
Anonymous is nonsense. Before this review goes any further we need to get that out of the way. It’s dumb. It’s a big, dumb Hollywood conspiracy thriller that hinges on some rather sketchy, regularly refuted, circumstantial evidence. The kind of evidence beloved by the sort of people who think the 1969 Moon landings never happened, that UFOs are piloted by Nazis who escaped to Antarctica and that a shadowy cabal made up of the CIA, the Bilderberg Group, the Vatican and PBS were behind 9/11.
And, as for factual accuracy, well, Anonymous may as well have been directed by Michael Moore. It’s fast-paced, it’s enthralling, it’s persuasive, but, like the documentaries of Moore and his bastard progeny Spurlock, it never allows the facts to get in the way of its argument, swapping rhetoric for historical accuracy. Emmerich’s never been a subtle filmmaker (he’s the guy who built a career on blowing up the White House, for God’s sake!) and has answered accusations of playing fast and loose with the facts by saying “It’s the mood that counts,” a statement that echoes the sentiments of The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” With Anonymous it’s all legend, not fact.
Omnisexual poet, playwright, atheist, adventurer and spy Christopher Marlowe (now there’s a guy who needs his own film!) plays a minor role in Anonymous and, to be honest, the political intrigues depicted in the film are exactly the waters Marlowe would have swam in.
Of course, by the time the film starts in 1598, Marlowe had already been dead for five years, stabbed in the eye in a Deptford bawdy house by fellow spy Ingram Frizer, possibly on the orders of Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. While there’s a dozen theories about how Marlowe came to meet his end, none of them involve Shakespeare slitting his throat in an alley in Southwark.
There’s never been any evidence the Virgin Queen had any illegitimate children (merely rumours of a liaison with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester) let alone that she had a string of bastards she was so bad at keeping track of that she’d have an affair with one of them.
While the Globe, Shakespeare’s theatre did burn down, it happened around 10 years after the events of the film and there’s never been any evidence that it was arson let alone arson committed by Cecil’s soldiers.
The play Richard III plays a pivotal role in the film, stoking mob support for Essex’s rebellion. In reality, the play that inflamed the mob was Richard II but it’s less well known, less quotable. And it doesn’t have any evil, ambitious hunchbacks.
And then there’s the small matter of ignoring all the evidence which points to the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were written by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, instead arguing in the face of all reason that one of the greatest writers the world has ever known was actually a forgotten Elizabethan courtier. The accusation that Shakespeare didn’t author his own plays is one born of exclusivity, of snobbishness. How could a man of such lowly origins, with so little breeding, how could such a common man produce such beautiful work? Why, it had to have been someone of noble birth.
If the play is indeed the thing, if Emmerich is right that it’s the mood that counts, that, above all else, a tale should be well told, then Anonymous succeeds.
It atmospherically evokes the Elizabethan era and it’s intrigues, creating such a convincingly authentic world you can almost smell the effluent in the Thames. While one or two of the younger cast members betray their lack of experience, the performances are, for the most part, terrific, Rhys Ifans giving perhaps his finest performance since Twin Town, David Thewlis and Edward Hogg shining as his shadowy adversaries and both Joely Richardson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, are wonderful in he dual role of the Queen while Sebastian Armesto is sympathetic and suitably haunted as Johnson, the man who knew too much. As Shakespeare, Rafe Spall just gives us an Elizabethan variation on the customary whiny, sociopathic buffoon role that seems to be his fallback setting. But he does make rather a good whiny, sociopathic buffoon. The action is exciting, the plays well-staged to punctuate the plot and Orloff’s script plays with the facts of De Vere’s life, finding parallels with events depicted in Shakespeare’s plays.
Not content with casting doubt on the authenticity of Shakespeare, Emmerich and Orloff throw political machinations, treason, greed, duplicity, illegitimacy, illicit love, murder and incest into the mix creating a thumping good romp that’s almost Grecian in its tragedy.
Glossy and bombastic, Anonymous will have Shakespeare scholars foaming at the mouth but, if you leave your sense of disbelief (and your sense) at the door, it’s enormous fun.
Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Rafe Spall, Sebastian Armesto, Jamie Campbell Bower, Derek Jacobi