Who actually created the body of work credited to William Shakespeare?  Experts have debated, books have been written, and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of the most renowned works in English literature. Anonymous poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when scandalous political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles lusting for the power of the throne were brought to light in the most unlikely of places: the London stage.

3.5
Emmerich takes on the Bard, as you like it!

For those film buffs who never expected to see Roland Emmerich associated with Shakespeare, let alone in a favourable light, here’s a major surprise: the director best known for a string of noisy, pyrotechnically-driven disaster movies has actually delivered an intelligent, expertly crafted and richly entertaining melodrama.

And a rewriting of history that’s deliberately provocative: Anonymous postulates that William Shakespeare was an illiterate buffoon whose 37 plays and 154 sonnets were in fact written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. That’s a conspiracy theory that’s been circulating for more than 90 years while others began questioning their authorship in the mid-19th Century.

Even more contentiously, John Orloff’s screenplay alleges the 'Virgin" Queen Elizabeth had several bastard children and that she committed incest.

All highly questionable, fanciful or unproven, and the film is riddled with factual and chronological errors. So it’s best to cast aside such quibbles and simply enjoy the experience of being immersed in the jealousy, lust, political intrigue and chicanery of Elizabethan London.

The heart of the movie isn’t really who wrote the Bard’s works but the tumultuous relationship between de Vere, played as a young buck by Jamie Campbell Bower and in middle age by Rhys Ifans, both excellent, and the Queen, amid the machinations of the Royal court.

In a piece of inspired casting, Emmerich hired Joely Richardson to impersonate the young monarch, depicted here as volatile, headstrong and passionate, and Joely’s mother Vanessa Redgrave as the aging, doddery and deluded Queen.

Rafe Spall portrays Will, a jobbing actor, as a greedy, simpering fool who was smart enough to seize the chance to claim the credit for de Vere’s works. The character is barely articulate so the film implicitly asks: How could on Earth could this buffoon be the world’s most famous playwright?

Sebastian Armesto is fellow playwright Ben Jonson, a tortured but talented fellow who was asked by de Vere to claim authorship of his works because, as the Earl explained, 'I have a reputation to protect".

As the villains, David Thewlis is impressive as the conniving, sinister William Cecil, de Vere’s father-in-law and the Queen’s most trusted advisor who denounced plays as 'the work of the devil," and Edward Hogg excels as his equally Machiavellian son and successor, the hunchback Sir Robert Cecil.

Among the other notable players are the Earl of Southampton (Aussie Xavier Samuel), the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) and playwright Christopher Marlowe (Tristan Gravelle).

Ifans’ de Vere is at his most poignant when he’s sitting in the gallery of The Rose and Globe Theatres watching 'his" plays being performed, mouthing the words and grimacing as that idiot commoner Shakespeare takes his bows, and later in a confrontation with Redgrave’s Queen and as he reflects on an unhappy life.

The CGI-created renderings of Elizabethan London are stunning, particularly the re-enactments of St Paul’s, London Bridge, the Tower and the Queen’s Whitehall Palace.

While Emmerich mostly handles the material with uncustomary restraint, he can’t resist some bombastic touches including thunder and lightning to needlessly punctuate several dramatic scenes, thunderously loud music at times, and liberal use of pyrotechnics in his staging of the Essex rebellion when the Earls of Essex and Southampton mounted an ill-fated coup d’état.

In the prologue set in a modern-day New York theatre, Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi (a clever touch) sets in train the Bard-was-a-fake theory by stating that no manuscript bearing his handwriting was ever found.

But there are numerous errors in the screenplay. Among the most blatant: The film shows Richard III being performed at the then-new Globe Theatre, featuring a hunchback villain intended to mock Robert Cecil; the play in question was Richard II.

De Vere died in 1604, before 10 of Shakespeare's plays including Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest were written.

Besides, the allegations about the Queen’s children, who fathered them and their fates, are highly debatable. Similarly dubious is the scenario that Shakespeare was a blackmailer and a murderer.

None of that is likely to bother the director who’s taken a critical hammering for 2012, 10,000 BC, The Day After Tomorrow and Godzilla; according to Rotten Tomatoes, his only movies in positive territory with the world’s critics are Independence Day and The Patriot.

'I’ve had debates with all of these professors of the literary establishment," Emmerich said in one interview. 'I was right in their face about this Shakespeare controversy I’ve put on film, and they were foaming at the mouth. I just smile and say, 'Whatever’".

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Details

M
2 hours 10 min
In Cinemas 03 November 2011,
Thu, 01/01/1970 - 20

Genres