Film review – Anonymous (2011)

Anonymous: Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans)
Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans)

Director Roland Emmerich makes the type of cinema that is often dismissed as guilty pleasures. His films are usually spectacle driven and often reliant on big scenes of mass destruction to keep audiences passively entertained. However, unlike directors such as Transformer franchise director Michael Bay, Emmerich seems to genuinely love the craft of filmmaking and doesn’t have contempt for the audience. His films deliver the thrills and excitement through a combination of engaging characters, narratives with a reasonably coherent inner logic and actual spectacle rather than a rapidly edited illusion of excitement.

With Anonymous Emmerich has taken one of his breaks from epic disasters to make another period film. Set in England during the reign of Elizabeth I (who’s played by both Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave), Anonymous explores the fun fringe theory that William Shakespeare was a hoax. The idea is that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower), was the true author, keeping his identity secret to protect his good standing as an aristocrat and to conceal the political motivations behind the plays. The result is a melodramatic film filled with historical conspiracies, political skulduggery and sexual transgressions. It is also a remarkably restrained and complex film that explores the power that popular entertainment has to embed ideological ideas into the minds of the audiences who consume it.

Anonymous: Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave)
Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave)

The degree of seriousness in which Anonymous peruses the concept that Shakespeare was a fraud is minimal. It’s about as serious as Emmerich’s examination of climate change in The Day After Tomorrow or his exploration of the Mayan calendar in 2012. For Emmerich, the Shakespeare conspiracy is just another high concept to base a film around, no different from appropriating 1950s Hollywood alien invasion films for Independence Day or Japanese monster films for his own Godzilla. The concepts that underpin Emmerich’s films are no more than elaborate MacGuffins so getting bogged down in critiquing the historical accuracy of Anonymous is a somewhat useless pursuit. Taking the events in Anonymous at face value as if it were documentary would also be rather ironic considering how large portions of the film depict the way historical events are recreated in popular entertainment for effect.

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of Anonymous is how it engages with the idea of persuasive entertainment. Not only does the film celebrate the spectacle and excitement of Shakespearian theatre, which was the blockbuster entertainment of its time, but it also draws blatant causal links between audiences being emotionally affected by what they are seeing and then forming opinions based on those feelings. Even though it is the sympathetic characters in the film who are the ones trying to shape popular opinion through the plays, the message is clear: all art is political. One of the most impressive things about Anonymous, a film by a mass entertainment director, is how well it demonstrates the ideological power of popular culture.

Anonymous: Young Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson) and Young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower)
Young Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson) and Young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower)

Of course Anonymous itself is an ideological work. While it presents Elizabeth I sympathetically as a person, it overall regards the English monarchy in a rather sordid and critical light, especially in the extent that it is manipulated covertly by the puritan and anti-intellectual Cecil family. On the other hand, the film doesn’t have much time for the ‘masses’ either, since they are seen as a rather simplistic, fickle and easily persuaded bunch, including the illiterate buffoon actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). The heroes of the film are the tormented writers: the Earl of Oxford who must keep his identity a secret and his co-conspirator Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), the ‘commoner’ playwright whose own ambitions are unfulfilled. It’s a long way from the mildly conservative and centrist social cohesion message of Independence Day.

Anonymous is a curious film that on one level aims to sweep the audience away with its elaborate historical story of fraud, injustice and forbidden love and on another level is exposing the manipulative power of entertainment. Strangely it does actually work on both levels. While the initial time shifts are distracting and its long running time could have been trimmed, it is a remarkably well-sustained piece of cinema. Just don’t worry too much about the historical accuracy. Instead enjoy the various references to Shakespeare’ plays that pop up throughout the film and look out for the moment when the slow clap is seemingly invented during a performance of Hamlet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Whatever Emmerich’s intention the ‘controversy’ over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays should not be glossed over. It is one of a numerous and an increasing number of cases (intelligent design, holocaust denial, the stolen generations, global warming) where people spouting unfounded opinion demand equal time with experts presenting verified facts. I was happy to ignore this film until i learned the promoters where distributing teaching pacts so high school students could be “taught the controversy”. The idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays (he died long before Shakespeare finished writing them) is obvious nonsense but it contributes to an anti-intellectual and anti-rational spirit in our present age that stifles free thought and positive action.

  2. I do agree with you in essence Jacob as I am also infuriated with how all too often equal weight is given to unfounded opinion as it is to facts researched by experts. It’s even something I wrote about recently in relation to how intellectualism is derided in popular discourse and cinema.

    However, I cannot take the blatantly ridiculous theories presenting in this film even remotely as seriously as those other issues you have listed. I really do understand and empathise where you are coming from on this, but these are not comparable issues.

  3. Granted, and I wasnt so much drawing an equivilance between the issues as between the method and a more general trend in anti-intellectualism. There is however a current of class war in the debate that is worrying – there is no way He could have written the plays because he didn’t go to Uni and wasn’t born with a title. Having read more about the film I can see that it is a lot sillier than i first asumed but I would still rather see Drive.

  4. Very good point about the representation of class in this film. It troubled me too, and I meant to mention it in my review so thanks for bringing it up now.

    Yes, definitely see Drive over this!

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