Reviewed by Kevin Finnerty
“What if I told you that William Shakespeare never wrote a single word?” So begins Roland Emmerich’s political thriller, Anonymous, forwarding the infamous theory that it was in fact Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who was the true author of the timeless plays Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard the III and all the other classic plays and sonnets.
Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) is aware, as most everyone else is, that Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) is nearer the end of her rule than the beginning, and the political shifting and power plays have already begun. A successor is needed and Edward wants to ensure that the Earl of Essex is in the running. Edward, always talented in the arts and play-writing as a young man, knows the power political stories can have on both the people and her Royal Highness the Queen. However, a man of his stature cannot and would not be accepted as a lowly playwright. Edward picks the struggling playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), recently freed from prison, to act as the author of his works, a task for which he will be paid handsomely.
Ben, struggling with his morals and ethics, can’t bring himself to take credit even after the roaring success of their first collaboration, Romeo & Juliet. His friend William Shakespeare, an actor in the production, quickly grabs the play, dots a few drops of ink on his sleeve and fingers and walks out on stage bowing and thanking everyone for enjoying his new work.
Edward has more in mind than just hearing his words and seeing his plays being performed for an audience. He hopes to use his works to sway the crowd and the Queen herself to eventually be moved to announce the Earl of Essex as her successor instead of a foreign king who would be a puppet to the mind of the throne’s current adviser, William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his hunchback son, Robert (Edward Hogg).
Anonymous is a dramatic political thriller/period piece that has an excellent ensemble cast and Oscar-worthy performances. Rhys Ifans is stellar in the role of Edward de Vere, an aristocrat who is determined to see Essex on the throne but who gets caught up and carried away with hearing his plays finally being performed by actual actors and embraced by the audience. In his heart and very soul, Edward is an artist trapped by his position in life as an Earl. Rhys captures the complexities of the man with grace, passion and presence.
Vanessa Redgrave delivers one of the best performances of her career as Elizabeth I, an aging Queen who hasn’t lost her love for the arts, remembers vividly her romances and heartbreaks, and is determined to leave the right successor in charge of her kingdom. It’s a performance deserving of, at the very least, an Oscar nomination.
The stand-out performance in the film is given by character actor Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare. He steals every scene he’s in, portraying the false playwright as a charming, dynamic, fairly uneducated rogue who lives for the spotlight and will use his newfound glory to forward his career and crush anyone who gets in his way. He should not be underestimated.
Director Roland Emmerich deserves credit for creating a solid and easy pacing to the film, especially considering the multiple times the movie goes back and forth in time to reveal the relationship between Elizabeth I and Edward and their complicated and heartfelt past.
Reminiscent of the classic Peter O’Toole period films Becket and The Lion in Winter, Anonymous is one of the few great dramas to hit the big screen this year and is one of the best pictures of the year. It shouldn’t be missed.
Anonymous was directed by Roland Emmerich and is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content.
More on Anonymous:
—News and cast list