Film & TV

Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Anonymous’: Emmerich’s ‘Anonymous’ Not Quite Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” but Similar

BY Mark Jackson TIMEMarch 12, 2022 PRINT

| 2h 10m | Speculative Historical Drama

“So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.”—Mark Twain

Just like the everlasting debate between Darwinists and creationists, and the warring climate-change factions, there’s an ongoing debate between the “Stratfordians” and the “anti-Stratfordians” about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that bear his name. Roland Emmerich’s 2011 speculative and historically “supplemented” cinematic musing, “Anonymous,” while not coming close to being convincing that “Willy the Shake” was a fake, gives one pause regarding the subject matter, in addition to being quite a fun movie.

man listens at doorway in ANONYMOUS
Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, R), eavesdropping on conversations concerning political machinations in “Anonymous,” a political thriller with comedic overtones that advances the theory Shakespeare’s plays were written by de Vere. “Anonymous” is set against the backdrop of the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I and her succession. (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

Critics, Audiences Agree

I thought “Anonymous” was lots of fun in 2011, and upon rewinding and reviewing, I’m not sure why it got slammed so vociferously by both critics and audiences alike. I suppose I could go study Rotten Tomatoes and find out exactly why, but my guess is that critics probably hated that Emmerich, known primarily for his special-effects-heavy blockbusters like “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” and “2012,” dared to try and jump out of his pigeonhole and handle more artistic fare.

Audiences were most likely expecting Will Smith battling aliens instead of Will Shakespeare portrayed as a vacuous low-class lout devoid of integrity and authenticity. And they reacted much like the audiences shown in the movie: by demonstrating how today’s premiere movie review website, Rotten Tomatoes, got its name. Actually, as depicted in the movie, there tended to be more cabbage thrown than rotten tomatoes at Renaissance theatrical venues.

Regardless, Emmerich seems just as much at home with this smarter, more complex, lower-energy subject matter. “Anonymous” is, if nothing else, a beautifully shot, visual, historical feast. It never threatens to bore or become overly scholarly.

Pseudohistory of Willy the Fake

wiseman and queen in ANONYMOUS
Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis) gives counsel to Queen Elizabeth I of England (Joely Richardson), in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

“Anonymous” is basically a cross between “Elizabeth” and “Shakespeare in Love,” with similar vicious political power plays for the throne, and lusty, forbidden romantic trysts in the Royal Court—a veritable mud pit of dirty deeds rivaling the reeking muck smearing the streets of London. Ultimately, the movie is as concerned about the end of Elizabeth I of England’s (Vanessa Redgrave) reign, and her succession, as it is about how William Shakespeare became famous by publishing an anonymous man’s plays.

It’s historical fiction, tweaked for maximum entertainment effect as only a bona fide blockbuster director is able to. “Anonymous” has probably given more than a few history professors heart infarctions.

Among roiling, multiple plot lines—some true, most probably not—the movie names Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (a very fine Rhys Ifans), as the real, behind-the-scenes author of the glorious canon normally attributed to William Shakespeare. He can’t publish plays under his own name because in Renaissance times, actors were considered “rogues and vagabonds” (basically prostitutes) and secular theater the dwelling place of Lucifer, and so such an avocation was naturally unworthy of an earl.

An aside: There’s truth to this—the origin of European theater (the Greeks notwithstanding) was church services, meant to uplift the human soul to God and Christ. Eventually it evolved that the proceedings moved out of the cathedrals and onto the church steps. And then down off the church steps and into the hearts of the cities, town, and villages, where secular theater was born. We think now of Shakespeare’s work as high art, and indeed it is, and yet it can’t be compared to theater’s original divine content; some Shakespearean content is as dark as the human condition is capable of descending.

ANONYMOUS
Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto, L), and Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

Edward de Vere chooses Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto)—the young, well-known, up-and-coming poet and playwright—for the job of being his public face and name; it’s a sort of reverse ghostwriting situation. However, when Jonson hesitates, one of his more opportunistic actors (also his friend), one Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a bumbling braggart of a classically self-involved thespian, grabs the spotlight and snatches away the prize. The earl then uses this artifice to expose the political intrigues of the day onstage, in plays, which is another reason he can’t sign his name on his work.

man being held up by crowd in ANONYMOUS
Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) crowd-surfing in the Globe Theatre, in “Anonymous.” It’s doubtful that crowd-surfing in mosh pits was a thing in the late 1500s, but who knows? (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

In one of the film’s flashbacks, Edward’s father, the 16th Earl of Oxford, entertains the young Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter), who is smitten by the precocious pre-pubescent Edward’s performance as “Puck” in one of his personally penned plays titled … “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

When Edward’s father dies, the teenage Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) becomes a ward of Elizabeth and is placed under the care of Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis), where he is exhaustively tutored to become a prodigiously talented, classic Renaissance man—one whose abiding love of poetry is given wings to fly. And voilà—the (possibly) real Shakespeare stands up.

Licentious Young Queen

man dances with woman in red dress in ANONYMOUS
The young Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower), dances with his secret lover, Queen Elizabeth I of England (Joely Richardson), in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

What may have enraged films critics is the fact that two important characters in “Anonymous” are represented so thoroughly counter to their popular images. Shakespeare, normally perceived as scholarly and erudite, is, as mentioned, portrayed as a loutish, illiterate schemer who manages to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, but who also has the acting chops to sell the charade.

ANONYMOUS
Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

Queen Elizabeth, normally thought of as chaste and virginal, is here hot-blooded and lascivious, giving birth to at least three illegitimate sons, with an incestuous relationship with one of them thrown into the bargain. That’s a fairly nasty historical twist, differing powerfully from the ones in “Elizabeth” and “Shakespeare in Love” (although one imagines that Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the young Elizabeth was probably also more lusty than the historical truth).

a theater interior in ANONYMOUS
A production of “Henry V” at Will Shakespeare’s new Globe Theatre, in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

We’d never seen Elizabethan England on screen quite like this before, in all its byzantine squalor and glowing, chiaroscuro ambiance, although “Elizabeth” came close. (British comedy troupe Monty Python was actually responsible for originally depicting just how much mud actually existed in medieval and Renaissance Europe.) The CGI is outstanding, and being that it’s Roland Emmerich, that’s hardly surprising.

Delightful are the bits and pieces of Shakespearean plays shown in performance at the Globe Theatre. Most medleys trivialize and diminish, but this particular “greatest hits” approach serves only to further underline The Bard’s brilliance and gets one musing about theater subscriptions. The smidgen of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is particularly effective.

a fairy in ANONYMOUS
Puck (Craig Salisbury) in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

Also enlightening are scenes of audience captivation, participation, and near out-of-the-body transportation, not to mention the mosh-pitting, hissing, booing, and  the aforementioned stage-ward launching of rotten vegetation to express displeasure.

Highlights

An all-star British cast presides, with Derek Jacobi reprising a version of the prologue role he had in Kenneth Branagh’s groundbreaking “Henry V.” The mother-daughter team of Redgrave and Richardson switch-hitting for the roles of the older and younger Elizabeth is perfect casting. Edward Hogg as the reptilian-like, calculating heir of court adviser Sir William Cecil—Robert Cecil, upon whom Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is supposedly based—is quietly menacing but also quite funny.

man kisses woman's hand in ANONYMOUS
Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

In the movie’s most touching scene, the long-forbearing Edward, who’s seen his rightful glory wallowed in for decades by the shameless, Oscar-speech-giving, self-aggrandizing Shakespeare—finally asks Ben Jonson what he thinks of his work. Jonson’s tearful tribute, with Edward hanging on his every word and deeply grateful for Jonson’s compliment, is moving.

A writing desk strewn with scripts, in "Anonymous."
The earl’s writing desk strewn with Shakespearean scripts, in “Anonymous.” (Reiner Bajo/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.)

In a sense,Anonymous was to director Roland Emmerich what “Schindler’s List” was to Steven Spielberg—although in an obviously vastly diminished sense. It’s similar in that it reveals Emmerich, heretofore regarded only as an action filmmaker and entertainer (in the same way pre-“Schindler’s List” Spielberg was known only for those things), as a filmmaker of more depth than one had formerly given him credit for.

Movie poster for "Anonymous."
Movie poster for “Anonymous.”

‘Anonymous’
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Rafe Spall, Derek Jacobi, Sebastian Armesto, Edward Hogg, Jamie Campbell Bower
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Oct. 28, 2011
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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