The Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is a talented playwright whose position forces him to publicly abandon his endeavors. He seeks to sign over his plays and sonnets to Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), but that’s easier said than done. When William Shakespeare takes credit (Rafe Spall), that’s the least of concerns as the words of Edward affect the political climate.
Rhys Ifans is an unrecognizable powerhouse, and though the rest of the cast fairs well, he shines. As does director Roland Emmerich, who uses every trick at his disposal to make a highly sophisticated drama littered with elaborate costumes and set decoration to be admired.
The theatre experience is very well represented in Anonymous, with the narrator barely making the curtain. Believe it or not but this does actually happen and there are actors who specialize in. The workings of the theatre coincide with the events described and eventually merge. In the time of Edward, the Globe is shown with spectacular accuracy and the familiar faces of the troupe appear across plays.
The future of England is put at stake as the insight into Edward’s inspiration is penned on a relationship with Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave and in younger form Joely Richardson). These secrets showcase the power of words to win over love and country.
Is it cheating to inject stolen verse into a screenplay? To some extent yes. We’re talking about a movie that lifts words, then says they came from a thief. A bit of a paradox if anything. Similarly, it would be silly for J.J. Abrams to direct a movie that’s filled with scenes from every Steven Spielberg film, yet that happened with Super 8.
If Anonymous has a fault, it would be in jerking around the audience. The movie starts with an inventive use of a framing device, and quite appropriately in a theatre. We go back and Ben Johnson is jailed, only for us to go back 5 years to see him getting jailed. Then we go back another 40 and when we next see Johnson he’s being set free. So… in which time is he released? Thankfully Anonymous is long enough to allow an audience to gain bearings.
Anonymous is Emmerich’s masterpiece, a radical far from his usual environmental apocalypse works. There could be a stigma surrounding the subject, which will be viewed as blasphemy by many. I’d like to reassure you that most popular cinema is an act of fiction. Shakespeare isn’t available to rebut, and most moviegoers are not concerned with historical accuracy so long as the story is compelling and filled with drama, which Anonymous delivers.