It was fitting that amidst a crush of stargazing tourists, we were sent by security to walk all the way around London’s Empire Theatre, only to end up five feet from where we had just been. We were there for the May Fair Hotel Gala, aka the premiere of Anonymous (which closed the BFI London Film Festival), a film that runs the viewer in circles around a thrillingly controversial literary assertion: that William Shakespeare was, essentially, a total fake. Once inside, and surrounded by the theater’s glorious 19th Century interior, director Roland Emmerich climbed onto the stage and commenced his speech.
“I surprised the studio that I wanted to make a movie about Shakespeare,” he recalled of the Columbia Pictures execs, who were probably waiting for a pitch about a computer-generated Earth vs. Mothra flick from the director of such blockbuster destruction films as Independence Day and Godzilla. “People think I’m about explosions,” he reckoned with admirable self-awareness, “but those who know me know that I love actors.”
As he proceeded to call a parade of hunky young stars up to the stage for a bow, it was clear that Anonymous would not be a study in Merchant-Ivory primness. Sebastian Amesto, Sam Reid, Jamie Campbell Bower, and Rafe Spall (as the so-called Bard himself) were followed by the always luminous Joely Richardson, who shares the role of Queen Elizabeth with her legendary mum, Vanessa Redgrave.
The film opens with a trick, a Derek Jacobi narration in a modern theatrical setting: “Let me tell you a different story…” Different story, indeed. Anonymous flits between 16th-Century decades to weave together a real-life premise that enrages literary traditionalists, the notion that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the real author behind Shakespeare’s unparalleled oeuvre, and that Will was merely a well-paid front. The film also strips Elizabeth of some of her majesty and dignity, focusing more on her emotional volatility (Richardson plays her breathtakingly, like a teenager in heat), especially in affairs of the heart–and boldly invents a trio of illegitimate royal offspring. (Off with screenwriter John Orloff’s head!) Most shockingly, Shakespeare is painted us nothing more than an illiterate buffoon and mediocre actor; his scenes provide the only comic relief amidst all the traitorous betrayals and grim atmospherics.
Surprisingly for a studio film, Anna Foerster’s cinematography is chillingly gothic: rooms are dimly lit, landscapes feel desolate and threatening, and there’s a vividly violent scene in which several dogs and a bear are made to tear each other to shreds for the amusement of an assemblage of the Elizabethan betes noire. Anonymous is genuinely a visual triumph, especially for those with more lugubrious aesthetic inclinations, and grown tired of so many flouncy costume dramas.
But the acting carries it. Rhys Ifans is a revelation as de Vere, effortlessly oscillating between icy cruelty and a noble and lofty defense of the sanctity of the written word. David Thewlis, possibly having learnt a few tricks on the Potter set from Alan Rickman’s Snape, is pure vitriol as William Cecil. And Armesto’s jittery and alternately sympathetic Ben Jonson–a mediocre playwright paid by de Vere for use of his name, who then pays Shakespeare for the same–provides the film’s plot pivot and moral pendulum, the man on whom the entire fate of theatre and poetry seems to rest. Of course, we know that its fate is secured.
Back at the glamorous May Fair Hotel (sometime home to Lady Gaga and full time home to provocative and punk-coiffed celeb chef Silvena Rowe, who oversees its venerated Turkish-mod Quince restaurant), we descended to the Crystal Room–whose massive Baccarat chandelier curiously resembled the alien invasion from Independence Day–to clink champagne glasses with the cast (minus Redgrave and Ifans) and director. Stealing a moment with Emmerich, we pressed him on the furor over Anonymous‘ polemical premise.
He shrugged, “I would like to say to those people, ‘relax’. Shakespeare belongs to everyone, he’s our Shakespeare.” Meaning, of course, that Oxbridge types tend to suffocate The Bard’s legacy under a blanket of uppity “purity.” In fact, we know little of his personal life, and thus the story is ripe for treatment with sundry artistic license.
“Luckily,” Emmerich observed, “we live in a democracy, where no one can censor ideas.” In other words, as Will himself might put it, it’s much ado about nothing much at all.