Review: Anonymous


Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by:John Orloff
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Rafe Spall, Sebastian Armesto, Xavier Samuel, Edward Hogg, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson
Released: November 3, 2011
Grade: B-

Anonymous puts forward a curious theory – William Shakespeare was not one of history’s greatest storytellers.  The plays and sonnets that carry his name were actually written by a man born into royalty – the Earl of Oxford.

The reason Oxford didn’t want his name attached was because they were part of a cunning plan to cause division within the English monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth had grown old and there was much speculation about who would succeed her on the throne.  Oxford was worried that she was being overly influenced by her chief adviser, William Cecil, who wanted to see a Scotsman next wear the crown.

Many of the plays featured political messages and Oxford hoped that it would subtly turn the public against Cecil and his henchmen.  The reference is made early in the film that this is a fight that can be won with words as opposed to swords.

Perhaps there is an element of truth in this tale but director Roland Emmerich makes it very hard to believe with this muddled story.  The film begins in the 21st Century with Derek Jacobi standing on a stage and giving us a quick history lesson.  I’m not sure what purpose this serves.

We are then whisked back into Shakespearean times for a lengthy and confusing introduction.  Writer John Orloff has tried to tell this tale using a mix of flash backs and flash forwards.  It doesn’t work.  It makes it tough to identify each character and work out their role in the larger story.  Not helping matters is the fact that for both Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Oxford, two different actors play the role – one for the “young” version and one for their “old” version.

I’ve had the luxury of seeing Anonymous twice – once at the Toronto Film Festival and once here back in Brisbane.  You may ask why I wanted to see it again if I disliked it so much on a first viewing.  I’ve read a couple of positive reviews over the past few weeks and I felt it deserved another chance.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I saw it in Toronto.

I admit that I enjoyed it a touch more the second time around.  I now knew all the characters and could understand their motives from the beginning.  That was the only major improvement though.  I still disliked the finale which gets bogged down in melodrama.  Did we really need one the characters to tell the Queen just how highly regarded these plays would become?  It’s cheesy and unnecessary.

The film’s best performance is provided by Edward Hogg who plays Robert, the hunchbacked son of William Cecil.  He is a sly yet awkward individual who is trying to follow in his father’s vindictive footsteps.  Also impressive was Jamie Campbell Bower (Sweeney Todd) as the young Earl of Oxford.  I didn’t know what to make of Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare.  He plays him as such a silly oaf that it’s hard to believe that anyone though him responsible for these plays.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Anonymous moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace.  This is an interesting story but it’s just a shame it hasn’t been told a little better.