Though it has received decidedly less notoriety and far fewer accolades, Anonymous is nonetheless for lovers of Shakespeare what Amadeus is for lovers of Mozart. That is to say, its strength lies not in historical or biographical accuracy, but rather in the delightful way that it highlights the wonder and fascination that are evoked by the subject’s body of work.
Utilizing the foundational premise (a rather hotly contested minority position within the academic community) that the historical William Shakespeare did not produce (indeed, could not have produced) the works that have been attributed to his name and that they come to us instead from the pen of his contemporary, Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, this film layers on a good deal of highly-conjectured though artfully contrived what-if-ing to present one possible (to use the term liberally) scenario that might account for this mother of all literary misattributions. Is the proposed scenario a plausible one? On the whole, hardly—no more so than the assertion that it was Salieri who commissioned Mozart’s Requiem Mass, or that he actually murdered (or at least attempted to murder) his infinitely more talented rival. But let’s remember first of all that Shakespeare himself (whoever he was) took a good deal of historical license in his own plays, for the sake of—shall we call it—“dramatic enhancement”, so why should any cinematic treatment of his life necessarily be judged by a higher standard?
Let me get just a few caveats out of the way at the beginning:
If you’re not freshly read-up on all the movers and shakers of the day, both literary and political—and possibly even if you are—the rather constant flash-back/flash-forward interplay that is the film’s dominant modus operandi will likely prove to be somewhat bewildering.
The Puritans are typically and rather unnecessarily slandered, maligned, and misrepresented. Others have set that record straight quite effectively, so I won’t bother to get into it here. (Although I do have to point out that, ironically, while it would be a stretch to classify the historical Cecils as Puritans, a Puritan connection of some sorts between Shakespeare/de Vere has been proposed.)
The licenses taken with reality occasionally approach the absurd. These would include the presentation of the Tudor Rose as an actual flower (the simultaneously red and white rose is a purely heraldic device), and the idea the Queen Elizabeth’s funeral procession took place on the frozen Thames River. (No doubt the latter was contrived by director Roland Emmerich simply because it would provide opportunity for a few seconds of some way-cool CGI footage. And, admittedly, it does, but he should have saved that for a much-needed screen adaptation of Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates, which I read for the first time just this past summer. After seeing this film I think he might be a really good candidate to pull that off, but I digress…) And then of course, there’s the big whopper of a “revelation” towards the end—the most brazen conjecture of them all in a film packed full of them. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say it will definitely color any subsequent re-viewings.
But those flaws duly noted, the strengths of this film are considerable: There are some really fine performances by just about everyone involved. The sets and costumes are superb. (De Vere's study is a source of fascination in itself.) The footage is generously but tastefully interspersed (in my opinion) with some really beautiful and convincing CGI depictions of Elizabethan London. We are treated to some extraordinary and compelling re-creations of Shakespearean theatre as imagined in the intimacy of its original setting. Several of The Bard’s plays are given this treatment, most prominently Henry V, one of my personal faves, and the presentations are quite stirring.
And this last point leads me to say that, if at any point the film approaches genius, it is in allowing all of the intrigue to serve as a decorative frame for the art itself. It is the plays and poems themselves, as well as the emotions they inevitably conjure up in others—wonder, delight, awe, rapture, jealousy—that assume and retain center stage, leaving all questions as to their authorship to fade silently into the wings. And most importantly, this film provides potent affirmation that art and artistry vastly overshadow politics as long-term molders of human society, the latter fading to mere incidental importance with the passing of time. As this film’s version of Ben Jonson so memorably reminds us:
“My lady, you, your family, even I, even Queen Elizabeth herself will be remembered solely because we had the honor to live whilst your husband put ink to paper.”