The use of the interrogative tense in the poster for ANONYMOUS is misleading. Director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff aren't asking whether Shakespeare was a fraud. They are telling us, without doubt, with complete certainty, that he was. Their theory is that it is inconceivable that a poorly educated provincial dolt could have written plays of such genius and erudition. Rather, they posit that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, a man of great wealth and learning, wrote the plays. But at a time when theatres were next to brothels, and plays seen as seditious, it would have been degrading for Oxford to be publicly acknowledged as an author. He therefore allowed the boorish, illiterate actor, Will Shakespeare, to take the credit, and the cash, with Ben Jonson as the unwilling go-between. If this weren't scandalous enough, the movie further raises the stakes by positing that Oxford was at the centre of a conspiracy by his enemy, the puritan Cecil family, that involved the line of succession, incest and bastards.
Taken on its own terms, ANONYMOUS is a great success. Indeed, I was quite amazed that Roland Emmerich - director of such dubious, mainstream disaster movies as 2012; 10,000 BC; and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW - could direct something with such elegance and beauty. Because, make no mistake, ANONYMOUS is a brilliantly directed film. The way in which Emmerich deftly handles the transitions between different periods in Oxford's life is elegant and never confuses. The conspiracy is woven with great delicacy so that even in the final act, we are genuinely surprised and saddened by the turn of events. In front of the camera, Emmerich coaxes a career best performance from Rhys Ifans as the older Oxford, and uses CGI to create a completely engrossing and compelling Tudor London. I was absolutely delighted to see Southwark and the Tower recreated, complete with squalor and grandeur. Kudos to cinematographer Anna Foerster, shooting with the Arri Alexa (the first feature to do so). She manages to create a colour palette of warmth and depth, beautifully capturing candelit pageants, and snow-covered country mansions. Most importantly, I cared. I deeply cared about the battle between Oxford and the Cecils - I cared about the fate of young Essex, the Queen's bastard son and pretender to the throne - and I cared about the Queen herself, wonderfully portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave as frail and vulnerable and hounded on all sides.
Of course, when I stand back from the film, the whole thing seems a bit pointless. I've always thought that these debates - who wrote Shakespeare; was Shakespeare a crypto-Catholic; was the Dark Lady really a boy - pretty pointless, as there simply isn't the documentary evidence to decide it either way. So you're just left with dogmatic people using thin supposition. In particular, the idea that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because they required great education strikes me as peculiarly class-ist. Just because someone is provincial and working class doesn't mean they aren't capable of genius - I mean, isn't the whole point of genius that it's like a lightning bolt. And anyway, according to Rene Weis' superb book "Shakespeare Revealed", Shakespeare attended a local grammar school and was taught by a string of Oxbridge graduates in all the subjects and to the very same standard that the movie suggests Oxford was tutored in and to....
But as I said, there's no point quibbling about the truth. I am perfectly happy to believe Will Shakespeare was indeed Shakespeare. That didn't stop me having a cracking good time watching ANONYMOUS. To that end, this movie falls firmly in the same category as SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE - a pleasing fiction.
ANONYMOUS played Toronto and London 2011. It is currently on release in Portugal, Finland and Norway. It opens on October 28th in Canada, Ireland, the UK and the USA. It opens on November 3rd in Germany; in Spain on November 11th; in France, Russia and Singapore on November 17th; in the Netherlands, Mexico and India on December 1st; in Sweden on December 16th; in Hong Kong and Hungary on February 2nd.