There’s a lot of controversy about Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous and much of it seemingly from those who’ve not yet seen the film.
Like the criticisms of Jerry Springer The Opera, some of the criticisms are dented when the causes of complaint are seen in context.
As the publicity machinery makes a point of telling us, the film dramatises the theory that William Shakespeare didn’t write his famous plays, which were instead the work of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and sometime lover of Queen Elizabeth.
Raised in a Puritan home by adopted parents, de Vere is banned from writing plays and so looks for a proxy to publish them. By a turn of events – on which some later major plot points hang and so we won’t reveal – this ends up being actor and theatre producer William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall).
While it’s true that the film therefore gives credence to the (probably) daft idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, the film does at least celebrate him as an excellent director and stager of them.
The audience reaction to the realisation of the plays is shown to be at least as great as their reaction to the words and ideas within them. So yes, while it does take away authorship of the plays, it does not openly insult or denigrate Shakespeare or say he has no part in their success.
But despite the acres of coverage of the film’s ‘Shakespeare angle’ the story isn’t primarily about Shakespeare at all – by no calculation is he its main character.
That honour jointly goes to de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower in younger years) and Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson).
Because when all the outrage by self-important experts is set aside, Anonymous is a political thriller about a dying Queen with no known successor but a series of illegitimate children of whom one, if he had the right backers, could be named King.
And taken as such it’s an excellent film.
The film starts with a stylish opening from Sir Derek Jacobi as a narrater inviting the audience into a ‘what if’ story.
That story is gripping, well paced and decently written. The sets on which it’s told look great and the cast are splendid in their roles. Predictably Redgrave steals every scene as the older Elizabeth.
The script keeps the main story of court intrigue ticking over nicely while the Shakespeare subplot is an amusing and ultimately harmless distraction from the much darker plotting and scheming in the Royal circle.
Ultimately Anonymous is a historical melodrama not a millions miles away from TV’s The Tudors, another dramatic romp in which real history was turned on its head in order to tell an entertaining story.
Like the majority of cinema films, it’s a work of fiction and should be treated and enjoyed as such.
Our verdict: 4/5
Anonymous received its UK premiere at the 55th BFI London Film Festival and is released across the UK from Friday 28th October.