In recent years, the debate over whether Shakespeare was really the author of all his plays and sonnets seems to have become a worldwide phenomenon. Reems of academic papers have been written putting forward the theory that old Will was a fraud and the real author was Kit Marlowe or Francis Bacon. And now it's the turn of Emmerich, the director of such high-class works as Independence Day and Godzilla, to spout forth his theory.
Anonymous isn't really about whether Shakespeare was the world's greatest writer or not – well it is and it isn't – because the story is so intertwined with the political machinations of the Elizabethan court that it gets rather lost in the end. There's so much going on here that Will is more of a supporting player to Ifans' central role of Edward, Earl Of Oxford, who we're lead to believe is the real author. The problem is aristocratic Edward can't be revealed as the real writer so he hires Ben Jonson as his frontman – the problem is Jonson doesn't like being praised for work he didn't produce and so Shakespeare seizes his chance.
Against this, Emmerich has a separate storyline explaining why Oxford can't reveal the truth – told in flashback with Bower as Oxford and Richardson as Elizabeth I (played in the later storyline by Richardon's mother Redgrave). Emmerich also throws into the mix a possible rebellion against Elizabeth, so the viewer has to try and make sense of three big plotlines running throughout the film – making it almost as difficult to keep up with as some of the Bard's own stories.
Most of the film is played as a straight drama – the exception being Spall as Shakespeare, who seems to think he's in a bawdy comedy, making the character stick out like a sore thumb. Ifans gives probably the "straightest" performance I've ever seen from him – by that I mean there's are no flourishes, no comedic asides, it's a typical leading man performance. Thewlis is also good as William Cecil even if he is almost unreognisable under a mountain of make-up. There are some nice touches – the opening involves Jacobi dashing in to a Broadway theatre to begin the story; former Globe Artistic Director Mark Rylance pops up as one of the performers at the film's Globe. But there's also a "twist" that left such a nasty taste in my mouth I'm still struggling to get rid of.
Don't go to see Anonymous expecting to get answers to the question the film is trying to ask – you won't get any. What you will get is some decent performances, good production values and a story that becomes so convuluted it could be straight out of one of the Bard's own plays – whoever wrote it!