Movie review: Sprawling, messy ‘Anonymous’ is highly entertaining

ANONYMOUS – With Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg and Jamie Campbell Bower. Directed by Roland Emmerich.

Anonymous dramatises the life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and bases its plot on the theory that De Vere was the actual author of the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare. It suggests that De Vere (Rhys Ifans) and his plays had an important role in the intrigues surrounding the successor to Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave).

Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), advisor to the queen, hopes that James of Scotland will inherit the throne, while De Vere wishes to secretly promote the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) as an alternative successor. Realising the power of theatre to sway public opinion, De Vere approaches the playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to assume authorship of De Vere’s plays in order to have them publicly performed and used as propaganda to strengthen Southampton’s claim to the throne.

The labyrinthine plot of Anonymous is further complicated through a confusing series of flashbacks within flashbacks. Several of the characters are portrayed at different stages of their lives, with the young Oxford and Elizabeth played by Jamie Campbell Bower and Joely Richardson respectively. Although it can be hard to keep up with the intrigues, timeline and huge cast of characters, the evocative atmosphere and beautifully recreated setting, as well as fine performances by the actors, makes Anonymous an enjoyable viewing experience regardless.

The film is best enjoyed as pure entertainment, rather than as a work of scholarship. Drama takes precedence over historical accuracy. Although the conspiracy theory at the heart of the film is a compelling one, most scholars of Shakespeare dismiss the claim that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. So, rather than approaching the film as a serious academic argument or historical re-enactment, anyone interested in Shakespeare or England’s Elizabethan era can simply enjoy its rich spectacle. 

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