Movie Review

REVIEW: 'Anonymous' Contains the Elements of a Great Shakespeare Play

Joely Richardson, left, and Jamie Campbell Bower in Columbia Pictures' "Anonymous."

Joely Richardson, left, and Jamie Campbell Bower in Columbia Pictures' "Anonymous."  (SONY)

Let’s play who does not belong: Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, Roland Emmerich. 

Likely when one thinks of Emmerich, the director of some outrageous Hollywood spectacles like “Godzilla,” “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and the absurd “2012,” the idea of cinema’s king of global annihilation making a dark, emotional and intriguing period drama about the authenticity of Shakespeare is certainly as questionable as the argument that the Bard was a fraud.

“Anonymous” is no fraud, though. Emmerich gives us a labyrinth of greed, deception, incest, murder and betrayal: all the juicy ingredients and excitement of a great Shakespeare play.

Bookending the film is thespian Sir Derek Jacobi ("The King’s Speech") in modern day New York City posing the age-old argument of Shakespeare’s authenticity. The film then jumps into Elizabethan England and follows playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) who, in secret collaboration with the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) stages a series of plays to begin an uprising against Queen Elizabeth’s plotting successors. Of course these plays are the famous works we know and love: “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Richard III.”

Very similar in style but much darker in tone, “Anonymous” is like an album’s B-side to Best Picture-winner “Shakespeare in Love.” The cinematography, sets and costumes mirror the modern classic, but the story of “Anonymous” is much more cynical, politically driven and a tad controversial.

Typically cast as a goofball, Rhy Ifans (“Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio”) delivers one of the most commanding performances of the year as Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford whom, according to some scholars and speculators, is the man responsible for Shakespeare’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets.

Adding to the roster of notable character actors who have played Queen Elizabeth I is Vanessa Redgrave, who breathes life into the often-portrayed stoic character. Unfortunately, apart from Ifans, Redgrave and David Thewlis as Elizabeth’s devious advisor William Cecil, the supporting cast is rather bland.

Unlike the famous line from “Twelfth Night,” “If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction,” “Anonymous” is as plausible as it is shocking.

It appears Emmerich put his heart upon his sleeve with “Anonymous.” Using the pacing of his previous actioners with a skillful and intelligent screenplay by John Orloff, the director has made the best film of his career.

Whether or not you believe Shakespeare was a fraud, “Anonymous” is genuine entertainment.