I want to make one thing clear right up front: I am not a proponent of the “Oxfordian” theory on the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays. I had a certain sympathy at one point after reading a well-written article on the subject, but I was eight years old and may have still believed in Santa Claus at the time. Director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff, on the other hand, seem to believe that the true author was in fact Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, and Anonymous spins out this story in all the ornate melodrama they can muster. And it would make a great story, too, if its identification with actual events weren’t so ridiculous.
So, here’s the setup: it’s late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), and she is heavily reliant — as she always was — on the counsel of William Cecil (David Thewlis), and his son, Robert (Edward Hogg). The Cecils have been making arrangements with King James of Scotland to succeed her on the British throne, which doesn’t sit well with Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and his friends the Earls of Southampton and Essex (Xavier Samuel and Sebastian Reid, respectively). In particular, they have reason to believe Essex is a bastard son of the queen, and thus a more deserving royal Tudor heir than James.
Oxford sets out to swing the balance of power by speaking to the people through the theater. He’s long been a playwright and a poet, though growing up in the Puritan house of the Cecils — William is his father-in-law — he has never been allowed to publish his works. So he seeks out Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) and asks him to stage the plays under his own name. Johnson instead puts them up as “Anonymous”, leaving the barely-literate Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) — here played as an Elizabethan equivalent to Russell Brand — to take credit for them. So now we have two completely different opportunities for melodrama.
And things only get more baroque as we flash back to Oxford’s history as a young man (Jamie Campbell Bower), particularly his former relationship with the young Elizabeth (Joely Richardson). All told there’s something like forty years of history that we keep jumping back and forth over, on top of not one, but two levels of framing stories on the outside of it all.
It would be appropriate for this all to be structured as a Shakespearian tragedy, and to some extent it is. But especially towards the end it spirals off into something more akin to a Greek tragedy. Maybe Titus Andronicus is a good tonal match. Either way, it’s completely outsized and larger-than-life; I spent a good portion of the film trying to stifle my laughter, and I’m not even a particularly astute scholar of English literature.
Technically, though, the film is brilliant and beautiful. Emmerich gets solid performances out of his cast and some stunning shots from his crew. If is is a Shakespearian tragedy, Ifans is spot-on as Oxford, and much scenery is chewed in his tragic downfall. As art it’s lovely, but as rhetoric it’s a joke. And it’s natural to wonder if the filmmakers are actually winking along with the film or with its obligatory “this is a work of fiction” disclaimer.
But whether Emmerich is as serious in his belief as he claims or not, it’s still hogwash, and some gullibles in the audience will believe it. On the other hand, so what? Oxfordians may be of a type with anti-vaxxers and young-Earth creationists, but I have a hard time seeing who the Oxfordian theory hurts. If — as modern literary theory tells us — the Author is as dead as Shakespeare, Oxford, Johnson, and Francis Bacon all are, then what does it really matter who wrote the plays which now stand on their own?
Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.