Anonymous is as much a product of Hollywood’s current obsession with “dark” and “real” cinema as it is an obsession with the man Shakespeare himself. Kicked off by Nolan’s vision of Batman, stories with ambiguous portrayal’s of good and evil set in grittier or more realistic settings are commonplace these days with varying levels of success. Unfortunately Anonymous is too muddled, confused, and a tad far-fetched to work, it won’t insult your intelligence but it won’t convince you.
Anonymous seeks to claim that it was in fact Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford who penned all his plays, sonnets, and poems. The theory states that there is a link between the contents and characters of Shakespeare’s plays and that of the life of Edward, and that new plays failed to appear after he passed away. The film sets to draw these parallels and tell a compelling story of political intrigue. It can be fun to explore these kinds of alternate versions of history, but it’s a fun that is lacking from this story, not to mention the far-fetched nature of the political twists and turns.
Rhys Ifans as Edward, Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, Rafe Spall as Shakespeare, Sebastion Armesto as Ben Jonson, David Thewlis as Willam Cecil, and Edward Hogg As Robert Cecil form a formidable ensemble cast, who play their parts superbly and believably. It’s unfortunate that none of them truly get the screen time to flesh out their characters. Redgrave plays a wonderful Queen and Spall brings a bit of fun as a charismatic yet stupid Shakespeare, but perhaps it was the broken nature of the narrative because while the acting was exceptionally good none of the performances stayed with me after the film.
The films structure is equally malformed jumping around to different times and places without a feeling that the plot was going anywhere interesting. The potential is there but it’s so poorly managed that it never quite captures the imagination. It’s easy to forget where you are, who the characters are, and how they’re relationships and the story at large are at play. Complex storylines require delicate hands to execute, but this plot has probably been made more complex through its telling. All this while the Director wants to you believe that Shakespeare’s plays really had a larger political meaning. Forgive me, but I would happily believe the Orcs and Goblins of Lord of the Rings could be real than throw out my disbelief here. There is a lot to be said for an entertaining style to sway the mind, and it’s missing here.
Proposing that Shakespeare wasn’t the master behind his plays isn’t a new thing, there are a number of stories that deal with this issue, but none of them have ever really captured an audiences imagination. Perhaps it’s because we don’t really care who Shakespeare was, the plays themselves transcend such pursuit, all we really want is to be entertained. Anonymous could have benefited from a bit of that thinking.