Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” are some of the better-known words in English literature, but what if their author, William Shakespeare, didn’t write them at all?
“Anonymous” speculates that the plays and poems credited to William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). The Earl must remain anonymous in order to cover up his illicit affair with Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave). While not a new theory — Oxfordians believe de Vere is the true author behind the “whodunit” Shakespeare question — the historical drama gets lost behind flashy sword fights.
Director Roland Emmerich, known for his disaster flicks “Independence Day,” “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” continues his tradition of cinematic spectacle. His version of London is shown in largely built sets, and the break from the overabundance of computer-generated locations in films today is certainly a welcome one. London, from its world of theater to its striking class divisions, comes to life on screen. Lisy Christl’s period costume designs are intricate and beautiful as well.
Where the film succeeds visually, it’s countered by a strikingly bland story. It shows Shakespeare as an illiterate actor, barely able to write his own name. Spall manages to capture the character’s opportunist nature with an ego to match, showing a side of the recognized intellect not often portrayed. But the storyline comes apart too easily, as Emmerich attempts to follow characters from childhood to adulthood and later years. The jarring leaps across time often make the film challenging to follow. John Orloff’s screenplay could have used a rewrite by de Vere — or whomever.
For the record, de Vere died in 1604 before the plays “Othello” and “King Lear” were even written. The film shows him writing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at age 9, and the illogical fallacies of the Oxfordian theory are never really justified in the movie. A director with more experience working with the time period than Emmerich might have been able to address the question at hand with some fitting depth.
In the end, what “Anonymous” is missing, in spite of its literary subject, is poetry.
“Anonymous” was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by John Orloff.