The tagline for this alternative historical drama by Rowland Emmerich reads quite simply "Was Shakespeare A Fraud?" After watching it, one answer is left ringing starkly in the ears of the audience: "Who Cares?"
Having spent the better part of the last fifteen years spreading widespread fear about the destruction of humanity, it could be argued that this is in fact the first attempt in a long time by German Hollywood sooth-sayer to make a film purely for art (as opposed to commercial) purposes.
As the tagline suggests, the whole plot centers around the core premise that the works of Shakespeare were actually the works of dishonored courtier Edward Cecil (Rhys Ifans) who used the medium of theater to exact his own political ambitions against the family to which he was indebted but also despised, all at the expense of one Benjamin Johnson (the man who would inevitably become Britain's first Poet Lauriette) .
The likenesses to several characters from Shakespeare's various plays and supposedly real characters from history is at times a little too stark for my taste. Especially the scene where the young Edward finds a spy in his private chambers which seems to have been lifted straight out of Hamlet. Most telling though is how the Bard himself is portrayed in the film. Gone is the dignified, swan-necked reverence of Joseph Fiennes and in it's place we are presented with a buffoon. The sort of laughable dimwitted charlatan which could be likened to Roderigo from Othello.
Emmerich's attempt at reducing the greatest literary mind of the Early Modern era to some an opportunistic, fraudulent thespian who achieved fame for Cecil's labor purely because he possessed the ambition to seize it, is a bold statement to be sure but it can never dilute the feelings of blasphemy (regardless of it's subtle delivery). Similarly the other playwrights are treated with the same brazen disrespect, especially Christopher Marlowe who, though offered his own level of dignity by Tom Stoppard, is reduced in John Orloff's script the role of a snooty and obnoxious gnit-picker.
Predictably, the best performances come from David Thewlis and Derek Jacobi (whose narrator is tragically denied any real screen time other than to bookend the beginning and epilogue). Thewlis is his usual stern best as the patriarchal elder Cecil, often outshining the often by-the-numbers performance of Ifans. An honorable mention should also be given to Julie Christie as the young Queen Elizabeth, even though at times she simply feels like a composite of Cate Blanchett and Gwynneth Paltrow.
So what to make of this somewhat mixed up take on one of Britain's great historical conspiracies? As a period drama about sedition during the Elizabethan Golden Age, or as a classical tragedy, it is quite satisfactory. As an exploration into the works of Shakespeare not so much. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Anonymous as a film disproves it's own relevance by simply offering a single abstract answer. It was a valiant effort by Rowland Emmerich to try and change his formula to strive more toward and ethical subject than one of doom and gloom. However, as the first paragraph clearly observes about the subject matter, by the time the final credits roll on Anonymous one is left with only one thought in mind; "Who Cares?"