Anonymous - Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans
Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and the Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans), the secret author of Shakespeare's works © 2011 Columbia Tristar

Verily, if thou art willing to entertain the heretical hypothesis that ’twas another who penned Shakespeare’s works, this is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable picture-shows of the season. A remarkably handsome and well performed production, its every aspect is praiseworthy. Harken unto this enumeration of its many virtues!

Anonymous opens with actor Derek Jacobi arriving onstage at a modern-day theater and telling an audience why many believe William Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him. What begins as a stage play behind him becomes the lushly recreated reality of Elizabethan London, where dignified Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere (a flawless Rhys Ifans) is about to attend what may be the first play he has seen outside of a royal court.  Brandishing a lace hanky and treading carefully on planks covering a muddy lane, he worriedly asks his companion, “There won’t be puppets, will there?”

Fascinated by the audience’s lusty enthusiasm, De Vere also is intrigued by the performance’s political overtones when playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is arrested for sedition. Meanwhile, a loutish and nearly illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is seen drinking between his appearances onstage.

It happens that De Vere himself has written a considerable number of plays, but kept them secret because writing is regarded as an unbefitting pastime for the high-born. Wanting those efforts to receive the acclaim they deserve even if he can’t take the bows, De Vere asks Jonson to stage one — Henry V — and pretend it is his own. But when Shakespeare hears the prideful Jonson express misgivings backstage about taking credit, he deviously puts his own name on the manuscript.

Although De Vere is outraged to learn that “AN ACTOR!” is getting the glory, he continues supplying Jonson with plays to hand over to the boor who would be bard. That decision eventually leads to betrayal, blackmail and even murder, with implications for the future of the empire itself.

Anonymous - Joely Richardson and Jamie Campbell Bower
The young Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) and the young Edward De Vere (Jamie Campbell Bower) embark on a perilous romance © 2011 Columbia Tristar

What’s exceptional about Anonymous is how artfully it succeeds not only as a convincing court-intrigue period piece and an outrageously iconoclastic academic exercise, but as a deliciously convoluted soap opera.  The young De Vere (played in flashbacks by Jamie Campbell Bower), raised by Elizabeth’s manipulative chief minister William Cecil (David Thewlis), is induced to marry Cecil’s daughter after a rather Hamlet-like killing. That doesn’t stop him from bedding the vivacious and seductive Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), putting the lie to her “Virgin Queen” moniker. Earl of Essex Robert Devereux (Sam Reid), who leads a coup against the queen in her much later years (when she is played by Richardson’s real-life mother Vanessa Redgrave), is revealed to be one of her illegitimate children. The film’s version of the Tudor family tree looks more like a hedgerow maze.

What’s ironic about a film based on the idea that a man of Shakespeare’s undistinguished background could not create masterpieces is that the filmmakers themselves prove the opposite is true. No one could have expected that monsters-and-disasters director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) would have a flair for turn-of-the-17th-century costume drama. Writer John Orloff, whose last screenplay was the animated kiddie flick Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and who previously adapted the fact-based A Mighty Heart, turns out to have a genuine gift for weaving historical romance and creative conspiracy into a satisfying suspense-thriller.

As for any strident Stratfordians who will object to the movie’s everything-you-know-is-wrong premise out of hand: Gentles, do not reprehend. The play’s the thing!

[Rating: 4.5 stars]

Anonymous gets its theatrical release October 28, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.