Bountiful in look and scandal yet convoluted in plot and historical validity, Anonymous tries to be a serious work of art but doesn’t have the credibility or filmmaking discipline needed to present its wild conspiracy theories.
As Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterwork JFK has proven, a well made conspiracy thriller can lay the seeds of doubt in many a mind no matter the circumstantial evidence presented.
Anonymous does the opposite. It takes on the popular theory that William Shakespeare was not the man behind such literary classics like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Rather it was Edward De Vere, The Earl of Oxford who put quill to paper and changed the arts. Yet if Oxfordian’s were hoping that Anonymous would be the right kind of propaganda needed to sway the minds of the uninitiated, perhaps they should have hoped for someone other than 10,000 B.C. director Roland Emmerich to being this theory to the cinematic masses.
Set during Elizabethan era England, Anonymous presents Oxford as both young womanising poet (Jamie Campbell Bower) and older, darker patron of the arts (Rhys Ifans) who finds refuge in his writings but can’t reveal them to the public due to his role of Lord in the Queen’s council and son in law of Queen’s chief advisor, the manipulative Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis).
Enter William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), here portrayed as an egotistical and illiterate actor who is used as a front by Oxford to present his plays.
Yet there is no much more to Anonymous with political treachery, forbidden relationships and revolution mixed together in a melting pot of messy melodrama, with Emmerich unable to create a clear picture of these costumed proceedings with Earls, Lords, not so virginal Queens, illegitimate heirs to the throne, jealous playwrights and poor story structure creating a film which is as scandalous as it is confusingly absurd.
Subtlety has never been a strength of Emmerich’s, and with his first foray into dramatic territory it is an element severely lacking in a story where a pause for thought is needed to soak in the “revelations” presented. As a result Anonymous is a shock and awe attempt at historical revision, where manipulation via eye candy is key to selling its “logical” proposition.
What is certain is that Anonymous looks bloody great while doing so, with Emmerich regular and cinematographer Anna J. Foerster (taking full advantage of the latest high definition digital camera technology), production designer Sebastian Krawinkel and costume designer Lisa Christi creating a visually lush period piece worthy of awards consideration for their work.
Yet that is as far as praise for Anonymous can reach. As conspiracy theories go, the “Oxford is Shakespeare” yarn is a perplexing and entertaining one. But while the tagline reads “the conspiracy will finally be revealed”, the artistic packaging in which it is delivered will not win new recruits.