3.5 out of 5 stars
Starring: Rhys Ifans
Roland Emmerich is often recognized as that director who is obsessed with destroying earth. Ever since aliens blew up the White House in "Independence Day," Emmerich as wreaked havoc on the world with Godzilla, global warming and the 2012 phenomenon. In his latest movie, "Anonymous," Emmerich shifts his attention from destroying the world to destroying the legacy of William Shakespeare. The film is drastically less CGI and explosion driven than Emmerich's previous outings. However, it's only slightly less preposterous.
The movie opens in a contemporary theater where a narrator, played by Derek Jacobi, takes center stage. The narrator suggests that due to Shakespeare's background and a lack of documentary evidence, it is entirely possible that the world's most celebrated playwright wasn't responsible for his library of classics. The film then changes into costume drama mode where we meet a young William Shakespeare, played by Rafe Spall, who is portrayed as a drunken buffoon that can't even write.
The real star of the movie is Rhys Ifans in a great performance as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. "Anonymous" proposes that Edward was the real writer of "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet," and "Henry V." He couldn't produce the plays under his name though because it would have brought shame to his family. Edward initially intends to have dramatist and poet Ben Jonson, played by Sebastian Armesto, take credit for the plays. But when Shakespeare steps up and claims that he wrote the plays, Edward has little choice but to go along with him.
The idea that Edward de Vere was the true genius behind these works is one of several Shakespeare authorship theories. Although I find all of these speculations difficult to accept, I must admit that they are nevertheless fun to hear about. The same can be said about "Anonymous," which doesn't seem so much interested in being historically accurate as it is in entertaining the audience. Besides, I would never expect a completely factual history lesson from a director who made a movie that claims aliens built the pyramids.
Emmerich directs the film with plenty of craft, depicting the Elizabethan era with beautiful sets and costumes. The screenplay by John Orloff is intriguing, although a tad too melodramatic at times. The film becomes especially convoluted as it nears the final act and enters Oedipus Rex territory. At a certain point you half expect one of the characters to stab their eyes out.
My main criticism with "Anonymous" is its neglect to humanize Shakespeare at all. It's one thing to make the man out to be a liar and a fraud. This film takes it to another level though by suggesting that Shakespeare might have even murdered a man to prevent being exposed. We never really see a believable representation of Shakespeare, who notably disappears for portions of the movie. For that purpose, this is not a fictional account that I rank up there with "Shakespeare in Love." As a neat little conspiracy thriller though, "Anonymous" is easily among Emmerich's better movies to date.