One of the surprise inclusions in this year’s London Film Festival was Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s take on Elizabethan England which poses the question: what if Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) never wrote any of his plays and was simply the front man for the pen of Edward de Vere, the Earl Of Oxford (Rhys Ifans)?
Unable to publish his poetry because it’s viewed as seditious by his father-in-law and privy councillor William Cecil (David Thewlis), the Earl approaches fellow playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) who reluctantly agrees to stage them. But when the time comes, Jonson hesitates. Sensing an opportunity drunken buffoon Will Shakespeare steps forward to take the credit along with the fame and glory.
Further intrigue develops when it’s revealed that the Queen (played in two ages by Vanessa Redgrave and real life daughter Joely Richardson) has a penchant for plays and harbours a love for the Earl with whom she once had a romantic dalliance.
Naturally this being an Emmerich film, it’s not high on subtlety. Emmerich gets his pyromania out of his system early with the destruction of the Globe Theatre by fire (it’s all too easy to imagine him pacing up and down, clenching and unclenching his fists muttering “Must. Destroy. Landmark”).
But what Emmerich does do well is bombast and here he pulls all the stops out – Will Shakespeare is a blithering over-the-top idiot and Vanessa Redgrave chews yards of scenery as the time-ravished Queen. There are swordfights, a hunchback, forbidden bedroom ravishing and more ham than an all-porcine rendition of Babe.
Where it suffers is in an inconsistency of tone. Rhys Ifans is suitably broody, presiding over plays like a dandy vulture with appropriate disdain for the illiterate fraud claiming the credit for his work. It’s a sharp contrast to Rafe Spall’s incredibly hammy portrayal of Will himself (a foppish booming imbecile) and Edward Hogg’s Robert Cecil (a hunchbacked leering villain who’s eerily reminiscent of Count Rugen from The Princess Bride). While Emmerich should be applauded for at least trying to do something different (no earth-shattering explosions to be seen here folks), it’s an unsettling blend of serious and camp.
This isn’t helped by a script by John Orloff that flits between periods (“present day”, 20 years earlier, 3 years earlier) which not only saps the momentum but is occasionally confusing requiring small mental adjustments every time it happens. Still, there are some astute observations to be found beneath the silliness – The Earl’s remark that all art is necessarily political or it’s just decoration is an important one; the idea of a plays being used as a catalyst for revolution is still relevant.
All in all, it’s best not to try to take it too seriously. Shakespeare purists will no doubt soil their pantaloons at the historical inaccuracies but if it’s taken with large pinches of salt and viewed as an early Christmas pantomime, there’s certainly some fun to be had.