Anonymous Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson Directed by Roland Emmerich
PG-13, 130 min.
Was one of the most significant literary figures of all time a sham?
That's the question poised by the new movie from director Roland Emmerich, known for his sledgehammer style in the disaster dramas "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012." In "Anonymous," the German-born filmmaker comes down hard on the bard.
The movie suggests—practically contends—William Shakespeare didn't actually write any of the plays, poetry and sonnets attributed to him. That renegade Renaissance theory has made a few ripples over the past century, but it's mostly been dismissed if not ballyhooed by serious scholars.
But apparently not by Emmerich, who has tossed a sumptuous-looking stink bomb of political unrest and forbidden passion into a Shakespeare-smearing, 17th century river of mud, blood and dark, black ink.
It's a ripping tale, to be sure, even if it's probably all bunk. But hey, nobody tried to pin historical inaccuracy on Emmerich when he resurrected Godzilla, depicted space aliens blowing up the White House, or orchestrated the end of the Earth in his previous popcorn epics. So let's cut him a little creative slack in the English lit department.
Welch actor Rhys Ifans serves up serious Oscar bait as the Earl of Oxford, a British nobleman and tortured-soul playwright who, "Anonymous" conjectures, was the true source of Shakespeare's works. And the way Ifans plays it, you almost believe it. The bogus bard himself (Rafe Spall) is depicted as a randy, functionally illiterate acting buffoon who was perfectly happy being a pawn and a prop—and completely ignorant of the earl's scheme to use the London stage to shake up the Royal Court.
The venerable Vanessa Redgrave and her real-life daughter, actress Joely Richardson, share the role of Queen Elizabeth I as the movie shifts back and forth in time. In the movie's juicy, jaundiced view, the so-called "Virgin Queen" didn't exactly live up to her chaste matriarchal nickname.
Like some of Shakespeare's plays, "Anonymous" can be a rather confusing unspooling of characters, dialogue and plot. It's easy to get lost in the facial-hair thicket of actors, earls, lords, Roberts, Thomases and Cecils, and the movie's jarring leaps across the years often make things even more challenging to follow.
But it's cool seeing some of Shakespeare's "greatest hits" being born on the movie's recreated London stage, and anyone who's ever thrilled to his words will enjoy the attention to period detail in the film's look and feel of the time, place and socio-political conditions that produced "Romeo & Juliet," "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar."
"To be or not to be?" mused Hamlet in one of Shakespeare's mightiest works. "Anonymous" asks its audience to ponder another question. It may not be worth seriously considering in the long run, but it makes for a fanciful two-hour romp.