Anonymous: Toronto Review

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A rousing but historically dubious conspiracy theory about who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays, enlivened by superb acting and Roland Emmerich’s most restrained direction ever.

Roland Emmerich brings Shakespeare's London to vivid life in this early 17th century conspiracy theory with a large and superb British cast

Lionized in Shakespeare in Love, the Bard takes one on the chin in Anonymous, a movie that portrays him as an illiterate buffoon, barely smart enough to fool Elizabeth’s London into thinking he actually wrote all those plays and sonnets. No indeed, in this movie young Will is a mere front for the noble Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, one of the more twisted characters in English history but, alas, a decent poet who has long had his adherents as the true author of Hamlet, et al. Of course, others line up behind Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth herself and perhaps even the stable boy at the Globe Theater. Anyone but Shakespeare!

This is all historical rubbish, but let’s allow scholars pick to pieces John Orloff’sscreenplay, which deals with the worst sort of unsubstantiated Elizabethan gossip, outright fabrications and warped facts to support this theory.

As for the movie itself, surprisingly, this is easily director Roland Emmerich’sbest film. Instead of blowing up the world or engaging in other sorts of mass destruction, he actually steers a coherent path through a complex bit of Tudor history while establishing a highly credible atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue. His British actors deliver their usual reliable performances while designers and digital environmentalist stunningly re-create Elizabethan London right down to the tiniest detail.

Okay, so you’re in an alternate historical reality, but the movie is glorious fun even as it grows increasingly implausible. No one is better than British actors at planting tongues in checks and yet giving their all to performances that teeters on the absurd.

Rhys Ifansdoes a smart and, yes, noble turn as Oxford, who initiates a political intrigue with his secretly authored plays only to find himself at the center of a Greek tragedy. David Thewlisas Elizabeth’s key advisor, William Cecil, and Edward Hoggas his hunchback son and successor, Robert, are political insiders incarnate: They probably could find a self-interested motive for going to the loo.

It sounds like stunt casting but the mother-daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave andJoely Richardson, playing the aging and much younger Bess, works to perfection. You might quarrel with the movie’s interpretation of this great historical figure but not with her enactors. They are splendid.

Much of the focus of this very plot-driven film falls on Sebastian Armesto, who plays Will’s fellow playwright, Ben Jonson, here cast as a most reluctant go-between in the conspiracy behind “Shakespeare” and indeed Oxford’s initial pick to front for him. Ben grumbles about this to a ham actor in his company, a guy named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall in a myth-shattering comic performance). Will is a dim light but bright enough to seize the opportunity to take on the role himself as Ben has his own reputation as a playwright to protect.

One of the film’s many historical problems is that it wants the fake authorship to play the key role in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, where the “fantastic earls,” Essex (Sam Reid) and to a lesser degree Southhampton (Xavier Samuel), engaged in a foolhardy though brief coup d’état that lead to Essex’s beheading. But “Shakespeare” started producing plays at least eight years prior to that moment. Plus the key persuasive fact presented by the film to back up its conspiracy claim is that Oxford presented “his” play Richard III, with its hunchback villain to mock Robert Cecil, just before the Rebellion. The problem is the play was actually Richard II. Oops.

Nevertheless, the film grabs at historical facts, mangles them into a plot worthy of a John le Carré spy novel and takes the viewer on a breathtaking ride through ye olde London. Especially splendid are the aerial shots of that depict that era’s town with the accuracy of John Stow, the city’s first great surveyor.

The river city seemingly dwells in permanent midnight as darkness settles over the town at all hours and everything is poorly lit. From the bear-baiting rings, crowded theaters, filthy streets and the royal court with its black-and-white finery, this is one of the best historical depictions of Elizabeth’s London yet.

Surprisingly, it does get the theatrical presentations wrong, showing them at night lit by torches when in fact they were always performed in the afternoon. But the staging itself is brilliantly done, conveying the interaction between declaiming actors and the “groundlings” in the pit, an audience that is literally part of the performance. (Most doubtful, however, is the creation of rain on stage from overhead sprinklers.)

The coming and goings of opportunistic courtiers in Elizabeth’s palaces, the movement of poets, peasants, whores and cut-purses in and about city streets, the city’s love for conflict and conspiracy — all this feels absolutely right.

The upshot of all the intrigue comes in a line delivered toward the end by Robert Cecil. He declares that the Tudors “show strange tastes in bedfellows.” And that is the nub of the argument, believe it or not, that the Virgin Queen dropped so many bastards all over England that even she — and the sons — lost count.

As far as who wrote the grandest immortal lines in the history of the English language, let’s give Shakespeare the last word: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”