Born and bred in Oxford as I am, it’s a shame that I wasn’t able to catch Roland Emmerich’s reassignment of the city’s most illustrious nobleman as the real writer of William Shakespeare’s plays when Anonymous very briefly brushed through the local cinemas late last year. But now, thanks to the blu ray, I have made amends and, purist though I am particularly when it comes to Shakespeare, I really rather liked it. I wasn’t expecting to fall for it. I had my scoffing hat on ready. But Roland Emmerich has this rather extraordinary power of making me warm to his films. As preposterous as they may be, as hammy as they can be, they have a charm to them which isn’t just to do with their enormous budgets. Obviously, 10,000 BC is the exception.
Anonymous is not like any of Roland’s other films. This time he steered clear of apocalyptic scenarios, bad weather and invading aliens, to tell the tale of a story that has always intrigued and interested him – the speculation that William Shakespeare’s plays had in fact been penned by someone else, Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. This was a personal project but because it was also a Roland Emmerich project, it would still be full of spectacle and done on a grand scale for a big budget. It would also retain that preposterous element.
The William Shakespeare of Anonymous is a word-fumbling, thuggish lout of an actor who accidentally falls into and upsets a scheme between Oxford and playwright Ben Jonson to pass off Oxford’s plays as the work of someone else and get them on the stage. An Earl with the ear of Queen Elizabeth I cannot be seen wasting his time as a writer and poet, a scandalous profession in these days when a play was viewed by many as an act of sedition. Bigger events are afoot, however. The Earl Of Essex, Elizabeth’s old advisor William Cecil and his son Robert – here suggested as the hunchback model for Richard III – are running rings around each other and the ailing Queen. With the threat of Spain and France still very real and Mary Queen of Scots’ son James standing in the wings, Elizabeth’s throne continues to tremble, even after all these years. No wonder then that she enjoys the relief of a good play, not to mention a handsome playwright. Elizabeth’s abandonment when watching one of ‘Shakespeare”s tragedies is so extreme she even undoes her corset in full view of a polite audience of courtiers.
There is barely a soul in Anonymous who is not up to some kind of mischief – soldiers, advisers, playwrights, the mob, the Queen, nobles, families – they’re all plotting and getting hot under the collar. Oxford’s situation is not helped by being married to the play-hating daughter of William Cecil and nor is her situation helped by her husband being mutually adored by the play-loving Queen. In this alternate reality, the Queen is not backwards in coming forwards with her loving subjects and she makes regular use of convenient nine-month long Progresses around her kingdom. One such Progress followed her liaison with Oxford, the produce of which has an impact on this story.
But aside from all the shenanigans and intrigues and plots, what makes Anonymous such a surprisingly enjoyable piece of cinema is its theatricality. Actors dressed in the most superb costumes populate extraordinarily sumptuous sets. Elizabethan London is splendid – its theatres, streets, river, palaces, dungeons and bridges. It is all presented on the broadest scale with vast panoramas across the city or along the Thames, populated by what looks like a cast of thousands. The theatre scenes of which there are many are a huge highlight of the film. The presentations of the plays, before the most enthusiastic emotionally-involved crowds, complete with jealous playwrights nevertheless moved to tears by the beauty of the lines being delivered in front of them, is fabulous. Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that the best parts of a film about Shakespeare’s plays are the plays themselves. Watching scenes from Henry V, Richard III and Julius Caesar you really can understand why these plays were viewed with such suspicion by nervous politicians. They were stirring stuff and the mob were very happy to let themselves be stirred up.
Oxford himself – played almost unrecognisably by Rhys Ifans – has to suffer the indignity of watching an oaf claim his plays and receive the adoration due to him. He has become an observer of men and while that inspires his plays it doesn’t do much to impress his wife or father-in-law. Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg) is a pantomime villain whereas David Thewliss gives some depth to William Cecil. Vanessa Redgrave clearly has a marvellous time playing an Elizabeth I who is fighting off the dotage towards the end of a long life. Having Vanessa’s daughter Joely Richardson play the Queen as a younger woman is both clever and effective. Jamie Campbell Bower as the young Oxford is far less so. I had a fair amount of trouble marrying the two together.
There is a lot of flitting to and fro between the years throughout Anonymous, there is also quite a mix of scenes on stage and off, with Elizabeth’s court itself presented as a type of theatre. All this is in keeping with the film’s structure as a play – Derek Jacobi as himself opens the film on a theatre stage in the present day, purposefully reminding us of Shakespeare’s use of narrator at the beginning of Henry V.
All of this is well and good and certainly makes for a feast for the eyes and ears. However, where the film falls down is in its plotting. Emmerich is only able to let off a few fireworks in Anonymous, he therefore makes up for this lack of explosive energy so beloved by him in his other films by blowing up the reputations of Elizabeth, William Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford and Ben Jonson instead. Yet, as a tribute to the plays themselves, it is second to none.