Review: Anonymous (2011)

By Jason McKiernan


For a film that purports to celebrate some of literature’s most sacred works and unveil the truth behind them, Anonymous is remarkably over-the-top and salacious, like an epic slice of historical gossip. Spectacle and intrigue can obviously lend extraordinary entertainment value in the right context, but Anonymous feels like a contextual quagmire, full of serious intentions but executed with a lurid gaze that undermines those intentions.

The results are unsurprising when one considers the man behind the camera. Roland Emmerich, Master of Destroying the World with Special Effects, is the film’s director, in what would seem to be a tremendous change of pace. But Emmerich doesn’t deviate from his usual tendencies, bending the Shakespearean period to match his form and style – proving once and for all that even makers of bad films can, in a way, be viewed as auteurs. The Emmerich stamp is all over this film, from the simple concept to the one-dimensional characterizations to the soap-operatic dramatization of events. Such transparent cinematic grandstanding can be fun, but the awkward blending of serious history with Emmerich’s sensibility doesn’t enrich its filmmaker as much as cheapen the history.

Anonymous puts a dramatic spin on the Oxfordian Theory of Shakespearean authorship, which posits that all of the works we attribute to “William Shakespeare” were, in fact, written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. It is the most popular of the many fringe theories questioning the validity of Shakespeare’s authorship, though it remains a fringe theory nonetheless. The vast majority of Shakespearean scholars vehemently object to such theories as specious at best and entirely baseless at worst, yet proponents of the Oxfordian theory assert that the understood historical record was falsified to protect the author’s true identity. Oxfordians argue that the real author of the Shakespearean canon must have been a well-educated aristocrat, and the personal and political implications of the works must have been autobiographical, thus precluding the scribe from taking public credit.

Years of stylistic comparisons have shown that de Vere’s style didn’t resemble Shakespeare’s in the slightest, and the former died in 1604, pre-dating publication and performance of at least 10 Shakespeare plays. And yet the Oxfordian theory carries on, its most current and notable disciple being, apparently, Roland Emmerich.

Questionable story origins aside, Emmerich is in full command of the film’s technical specs. Thankfully, he doesn’t twist history to the point where aliens, hell-bent on usurping credit from de Vere and placing it at Shakespeare’s feet, destroy all of England in a spectacular CG attack. He does, however, create a 16th century London almost entirely out of a seamless blend of CG and art direction, a feat that resembles Emmerich’s best-ever use of visual effects. Sebastien T. Krawinkel’s Production Design and Lisy Christl’s lavish period costuming are both deserving of Oscar consideration. Befitting of its majestic source, Anonymous is certainly a well-mounted production.

The content, however, is a different story. Anonymous was apparently a passion project for Emmerich, who in promotional interviews has discussed how important it was for him to tell this story and “get the truth out.” Yet for a film that is intended as factual truth, it is drawn with such broad sensationalism that any of its claims are automatically questionable. Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff have constructed a period epic of high personal, political, and even sexual intrigue. They elevate Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) into a literary genius who must sacrifice his authorship to protect his aristocratic standing and simplify Queen Elizabeth I (played as a young woman by Joely Richardson and in her older years by Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave) into a wide-eyed, wishy-washy queen rendered weak by Edward’s prose. Shakespeare himself (Rafe Spall) is portrayed as a 16th-century version of a Judd Apatow character, a drunken degenerate actor who stumbles about town ogling women. The characterization is ridiculously broad, though Spall dives headfirst into what becomes a standout comedic performance. But such ludicrous one-dimensional representations of complicated characters demeans the already controversial subject matter and exposes Anonymous as little more than a standard-order Emmerich movie filtered through a time machine.

49/100 – Anonymous claims to unveil the truth about Shakespeare, but unfolds like an epic-scale gossip rag, too salacious and one-dimensional to be taken seriously.

I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.