As we all know, the real author of William Shakespeare's plays was not Shakespeare but Sir Kevin Bacon. Wait, maybe it was Sir Francis Bacon. Hold it, I know now. It was Sir Francis Rotten, the great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather of Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten. And if you believe that, you'll have no trouble accepting all the literary and historical liberties taken in "Anonymous," a film where literature and history make strange yet intriguing bedfellows.
As we all know, the real author of William Shakespeare's plays was not Shakespeare but Sir Kevin Bacon. Wait, maybe it was Sir Francis Bacon. Hold it, I know now. It was Sir Francis Rotten, the great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather of Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten.
And if you believe that, you'll have no trouble accepting all the literary and historical liberties taken in "Anonymous," a film where literature and history make strange yet intriguing bedfellows.
The movie theorizes that Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) couldn't have written his plays. Why? Because he was illiterate. Zounds! He was also a boozer and a buffoon. This Shakespeare isn't in love, he's incompetent.
The real author of the plays is ... drumroll please ... the erudite Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). For reasons best left unsaid, de Vere keeps his playwriting skills a secret, hence the film's title, and asks playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to pretend to be the author. Jonson isn't amused by this ruse, but before you can say "forsooth," the plan goes awry when Shakespeare boldly proclaims himself to be the author. De Vere can't call the actor out on the lie without jeopardizing his anonymity, so Shakespeare is allowed to take credit.
Whether you buy the film's premise or not, "Anonymous" has so much going for it you won't mind. Well, you might mind a little.
First, you'll likely be amazed that the movie isn't directed by someone from the Merchant-Ivory School of Filmmaking. It is instead directed by Roland Emmerich, whose resume includes "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow." Having him direct an art-house movie might seem like having Dylan sing "Pagliacci." But Emmerich proves that he can do more than annihilate cities.
The film opens with Derek Jacobi on a theater stage setting the story in motion by proclaiming its theories. The film then begins in medias res in the middle of things with Jonson being pursued by the authorities clutching a bundle of plays. It seems Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), the hunchback son of William Cecil (David Thewlis), adviser to Queen Elizabeth, wants the plays destroyed. "Why?" you may ask.
This is where the intrigue sets in, as well as the confusion if you lose track of your earls and nefarious plots. William Cecil wants James VI of Scotland to assume the throne after Elizabeth's death, but he's not a popular choice with everyone, especially the queen. That's not surprising since he's the son of Mary Queen of Scots, who plotted unsuccessfully against Elizabeth. Plus, he's a Catholic! Aren't there any other heirs out there? Since the queen has a few illegitimate children roaming around, there just might be. But how does Cecil keep them from becoming king? Well, let's just say he doesn't ask them politely to just say no.
Now, even if you get lost in all this courtly intrigue, the acting makes for a pleasure cruise down the Thames. If an Oscar were given for Best Acting Ensemble, this film would be in the running. Ifans, Thewlis, Hogg and Armesto are all impressive, ditto for Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the elder Elizabeth, and her real-life daughter, Joely Richardson, who plays the younger Elizabeth. Yes, the film flashes backward and forward through history to further befuddle anyone who leaves the theater for popcorn.
The script by John Orloff serves the actors well.
In addition to the excellent performances, the film sports a realistic look as it depicts 17th-century London, warts and all, complete with muddy streets and blackened teeth.
And lovers of Shakespeare, excuse me, de Vere, will enjoy listening to excerpts from his wondrous plays. The reaction of 17th-century audiences to his works is particularly telling as words truly display power. After Henry V delivers his famous St. Crispin's Day Speech, one audience was ready to fight France itself. A play's power to incite such emotions is not lost on the authorities. Note that both Robert Cecil and Richard III are hunchbacks. Coincidence?
"Anonymous" won't be everyone's cup of mead. You actually have to pay attention to what's going on rather than just sit in your chair and let special effects wash over you like a CGI-generated wave. And yes, Emmerich may be guilty of piling on as he tries to weave into a cohesive whole a literary conspiracy theory, deceit, blackmail, murder and historical fact. Yet when the acting is this good and you get treated to the genius of Shakespeare, excuse me de Vere, even in snippets, there's cause for ye olde celebration.
"Anonymous" opens Friday, Oct. 28.