In 10th grade, this guy talked to my English class about how he didn't believe William Shakespeare wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. The traveling academic said that the playwright Christopher Marlowe, the scientist Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), or a handful of others might have written them. There's evidence backing each of the claims, and much of the supposition comes from the idea that the historical Shakespeare seems an unlikely candidate to be the author of the plays.
Now, disaster-movie auteur Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) has made a movie, Anonymous, about the question of Shakespearean authorship, advocating for de Vere. Such is the extent of the mess the film makes that it succeeds only in eliminating de Vere as a candidate. I don't know what happened back in the 1500s, but I'm pretty sure it didn't happen the preposterous way Anonymous says.
The script, by John Orloff, is a big part of the problem. Anonymous introduces a dozen characters, and before you can suss out the differences between the earls of Oxford, Southampton, and Essex and members of the family Cecil, the film hops around decades with younger and older versions of them. Emmerich doesn't help with a visual palette that's dank, dark, grimy, ugly.
But what can be gathered is this: Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans as an adult, Jamie Campbell Bower as a youth) is a genius writer and thinker who cannot publish under his name because of political ambitions and cultural prejudices. He's penned a library full of unstaged plays with names like King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet. He's also the former lover of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson) — alas, she's the Juliet to his Romeo.
London aristocracy is a potboiler at the time. Trusted adviser to the throne William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg and Isaiah Michalski) want to control who will succeed Elizabeth as monarch, angling for James, King of Scots (James Clyde). Edward de Vere backs either the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) or the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), I can't remember which.
Seeing the power of the stage — "10,000 people listening to the writings of one man" — de Vere constructs works that will sway the mob against the Cecils and toward his own aims. He feeds works to renowned playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and asks that they be produced under Jonson's name. A drunkard actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) seizes upon Jonson's indecisiveness and claims credit for himself.
That's just the premise.
The acting in Anonymous, it must be said, is roundly excellent. There are also a few good lines, such as Jonson saying, "I'm a writer, of course I've been arrested."
But Anonymous can't settle on whether de Vere was a calculating political player or a man suffering for his art, who has to put characters to parchment "to set them free," else he'll go mad. And what Anonymous does with its premise is a complete shambles, a farce.
A thousand monkeys fingering a thousand typewriters for a thousand years couldn't come up with this.
Opening Friday, November 4th