Before I went to see Roland Emmerich‘s “Anonymous” I did a bit of research on the film’s premise, which is that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, there exists a whole De Vere Society going back some 200 years whose members believe Shakespeare was a fake, apparently Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh among them. Who really knows? Feeling comfortable about the movie’s premise—from an historically plausible sense, off I went this afternoon, on my own (because some people who I’ll refrain from mentioning refused to join me based on the NY Times movie review). The NYT called the film “a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination.” I won’t go that far, but I did start muttering “what tosh” not far into the film.
On many levels, the movie is excellent theatre. I expect to see Academy Award nominations for set, costume design, and make-up, most of which was extremely accurate to the period. The acting was very good—Rhys Ifans stands out as De Vere and erased from my memory (almost, some things are too funny to forget) his tour de force performance in “Notting Hill” as the goofy Welsh roommate. I enjoyed both Redgraves, Vanessa and daughter Joely Richardson, as Elizabeth I, and I got a kick out of Shakespeare’s cockney accent and slang (which, given he was from Stratford-upon-Avon he would not have had, but details!). David Thewlis makes an excellent William Cecil. Jamie Campbell Bower does a creditable job as the young De Vere—much better than his work in the mini-series “Camelot.” But why was the most excellent Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi given a bit part? I’ve seen Jacobi as Richard III (front row seat, she bragged) and having him introduce the film and disappear until the end was a giant tease.
Then there’s the plot—ah, there’s the rub. Let me first say something nice. What writer Christopher Orloff did well, and which I have not seen in other historical films, was to set up the Cecils pere et fils (William, Lord Burghley and Robert) as the villains of the piece, pursuing fanatical Puritanism at the expense of arts and culture. Knowing something of how William Cecil plotted the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, I could buy this. The film also did a nice job of portraying the real animosity that existed between Robert Cecil and the Earls of Essex and Oxford. Orloff ‘s Cecils are master playwrights, and everyone, even Queen Elizabeth, are merely actors on the stage that is England.
Much of it was historically accurate. Most of Edward De Vere’s life—including killing a member of Burghley’s household–was true, as was De Vere’s estrangement from his wife. Essex’s rebellion was fairly accurate, though the role of the play in his downfall—which was actually Richard II not Richard III—was overstated.
If they’d only sailed closer to historical winds of fact, this would have been a great film, especially for 16th C history aficionados. But, Orloff took some, er, creative license, that had me squirming in my seat through much of the movie. The Earl of Essex AND the Earl of Southampton were Elizabeth’s children—Southampton her child by the Earl of Oxford, who was ALSO Elizabeth son. Now, I’m sorry, but I could take one fictionalized bastard of Elizabeth I—many a good historical fiction novel was published about the rumor she had a child. But three, and one the product of incest? This is where belief is suspended and fantasy fiction takes over. Elizabeth might as well have been a shape-shifter or a werewolf. I do hate it when facts are flung out the window, because so many people will watch the film and believe Elizabeth did have multiple children and an incestuous relationship. Hollywood. *Sigh*
I did enjoy the movie, although if it had stuck to its premise and worked a bit harder to be believable, it could have been a great film. Was De Vere the “real” Shakespeare? If, after seeing the film, you’re curious to learn more, head to the De Vere Society. But if you think it is bunk, then here are a few NY Times articles (“Hollywood Dishonors the Bard” and “Wouldn’t It Be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare“) as grist for your mill. In contrast, the UK’s Guardian review was much kinder.