Anonymous (2011): German filmmaker Roland Emmerich's gripping period drama with an intellectual edge

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Anonymous Poster, Directed by Roland Emmerich
Anonymous (2011) - By Roland Emmerich

Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 6.8
Genre: Drama | History | Thriller
CastRhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis
Country: UK | Germany
Language: English | French |  Italian
Runtime: 130 minutes

Anonymous is a 2011 period drama directed by German filmmaker, Roland Emmerich. The screenplay of the movie is written by American screenwriter, John Orloff. Part political thriller and part period drama, Anonymous puts a spotlight on arguably the richest phase in English Literature. Set in the Elizabethan eraoften said to be heralded by William Shakespeare’s literary genius, the movie gives a highly fictionalized account of the life of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere and the tumultuous relationship he shared with Queen Elizabeth I. Anonymous offers glimpses of the games of thrones played between the royal Tudors and the commoners Cecils beginning with the succession of Queen Elizabeth I and culminating with the Essex Rebellion against her. Anonymous stars Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I.

Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare in Anonymous, Directed by Roland Emmerich
Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare in Anonymous
The movie's prologue—theatrically presented as a rhetorical monologue triumphantly delivered by veteran English thespian Derek Jacobigives a brief intro about William Shakespeare and his much celebrated oeuvre. William Shakespeare—the author of 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and several narrative poems, which constitute a body of work that’s regarded as the most consummate manifestation of  human expressions in English Literature—is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the word’s pre-eminent playwright. And yet the entire world is divided into two sects on the question of the true authorship—often referred to as the Shakespeare authorship question—of the highly celebrated works that have been historically credited to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. What gives rise to this question is the fact that in 400 years not a single manuscript of any kind has ever been found written in Shakespeare's own hand. While a majority of scholars and literary historians have stood by Shakespeare’s authorship claim, a sect called anti-Stratfordians—adherents of the various alternative-authorship theories—have continued to believe that William Shakespeare was purported as the author of those works merely to shield the identity of the real author or authors, who, for some reason or the other, were disinclined to accept the public credit for their work. Over the years, as many as 70 authorship candidates have emerged that include Francis Bacon, the 6th Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, and the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

Rhys Ifans as the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, Directed by Roland Emmerich
Rhys Ifans as the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere
Anonymous too stands by the anti-Stratfordian theory and gives its verdict in the favor of Edward de Vere. The movie depicts de Vere as a literary prodigy, quixotic lover, passionate swordsman, disillusioned aristocrat, and a munificent and kindhearted human being. The movie is presented in form of flashbacks as the story seamlessly moves back and forth between different timelines connecting several characters and encompassing various subplots. However, in this review we shall primarily focus on the story concerning Edward de Vere, Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. Following the death of the 16th Earl of Oxford, a young Edward de Vere is brought under the puritanical supervision of the queen’s Machiavellian courtier, William Cecil. Cecil forbids de Vere from indulging into music, poetry, and literature deeming these activities sinful in the eyes of God. Edward de Vere, however, remains undeterred and continues with his literary pursuits—albeit clandestinely. Cecil, a master manipulator and the guardian of queen’s darkest secrets, coaxes the Earl of Oxford into marrying his only daughter as a ploy to maneuver a grandiose plan of his. Post marriage, de Vere gets amorously involved with the queen and while their illicit relationship bears a son, de Vere remains oblivious to it until much later. Also unknown to him is a ghastly secret that, if revealed, could shake the very foundations of his existence. As time passes by, de Vere grows weary of his aristocratic legacy which forbids him from getting his plays screened publicly, for in those days it was considered a taboo for a nobleman to get associated with theater. 

Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I, Directed by Roland Emmerich
Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I
Edward de Vere finally enters into a secret deal with a smalltime English dramatist named Benjamin Jonson. As part of the deal, Jonson is required to release all of de Vere’s plays and also take the credit for the same, thereby giving de Vere the opportunity to finally witness his own plays come to life—albeit as an ordinary member of the audience. After a highly successful first screening, the audience enthusiastically calls out the playwright and to de Vere’s dismay it’s not Ben Johnson but an oafish stage actor named William Shakespeare who reveals himself as the playwright. Apparently, it’s Jonson who deliberately appoints Shakespeare for the job because he thinks that his own style differs so drastically from de Vere’s that there's no way he can make them appear like his own. Jonson, however, doesn’t disclose de Vere’s true identity and continues to act as a liaison between the writer and his ghost. But, as the plays grow in popularity, Shakespeare gets more demanding and when Jonson refuses to cater to his whims, Shakespeare takes it upon himself to locate the original author of the plays. Shakespeare tracks de Vere and presents a list of his demands in front of him who acquiescingly obliges, thus exerting a much heavier toll on his fast depleting resources of wealth. During the course of the movie we learn that despite starting off as one of the richest noblemen in the whole of England, the 17th Earl of Oxford dies penniless with his legacy being limited to the literary works that his puritanical family so categorically disapproves of.

Sebastian Armesto as English Playwright Ben Jonson, Directed by Roland Emmerich
Sebastian Armesto as English Playwright Ben Jonson
At the time of his death, de Vere appoints Ben Jonson as the custodian of his works. It is at this point that the movie accentuates the indispensability of writers as a literary tool to document and capture the essence of an entire age, for in the absence of a worthy writer an era is most likely to be completely forgotten at worst and only perfunctorily represented at best. With the death of William Cecil, his hunchback son Robert Cecil takes his place in the queen’s court. When he hears about de Vere’s literary legacy from his sister, he gives the orders to arrest Ben Jonson. Jonson is arrested and is severely tortured, but he succeeds in guarding the secrecy of de Vere’s literary legacy. He tells Cecil that all of de Vere’s works have already  got burnt along with the theater that was torched by Cecil’s men; Cecil is convinced and lets him free. Jonson visits the ruins of the burnt theater and begins to search for de Vere’s works, which he had managed to hide safely prior to his arrest. He is delighted to discover them unharmed amidst the ruins. Thus, it is due to Ben Jonson’s efforts that de Vere's works endure—albeit under the name of one William Shakespeare. The movie ends with the succession of King James who, to Robert Cecil’s disgust, also turns out to be an avid theater man. The movie’s epilogue reveals that while Robert Cecil remained the most powerful man in the court of King James he failed to keep a check on the growing popularity of public theaters. William Shakespeare, however, spent the remainder of his days in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon as a businessman while Ben Jonson succeeded in his desire to be the most celebrated playwright of his time becoming England’s first poet laureate.      

Young Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower) shares an intimate moment (dances) with young Queen Elizabeth I (played by Joely Richardson), Directed by Roland Emmerich
The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere with Queen Elizabeth I
Overall, Anonymous serves to be a fine specimen of filmmaking that appeals to masses and aficionados alike. Orloff not only rewrites the history but also creates an epic tragedy in shape of Anonymous and Emmerich executes it with finesse and grand authority. What makes Anonymous singularly remarkable is that it can be accessed at several levels. At one level it comes across as a great tale of jealousy,  intrigue and suspense. At another level, it can be looked upon as a biopic of an all but forgotten artist. Anonymous simultaneously serves to be a fascinating tale of unrequited love and obsession. And yet, it has all the makings of an effective political thriller as well as an evocative period drama. The movie’s art direction and costume design inexplicably remind one of Milos Forman’s 1984 musical masterpiece, Amadeus. Anonymous has its flaws and it clearly falls short of being called as a masterpiece. But, these obvious shortcomings surely don’t rob the movie of its glory, for the movie succeeds in propagating itself with utmost conviction. Anonymous has its moments, most of which are quite high on emotional content. It thrills, fascinates, annoys and saddens; it makes one cry on one occasion and laugh on another. The movie’s highly effective non-linear narrative enriches it with a whole new level of intrigue that keeps the viewer interested throughout, even making a second viewing absolutely necessary.  In terms of raw entertainment, Anonymous serves to be a consummate cinematic experience that enthralls endlessly. Highly recommended!  

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  1. Wow, a 9.0... I had all but written this one off as a trifle. When I saw the trailer it felt to me like modern people playing dress-up. Might have to give it a chance now.

  2. Bonjour, I am absolutely certain that you won't be disappointed... I myself had to watch it twice to reach this conclusion :)

  3. Thanks Arun! I too experienced a similar kind of a feeling... given the movie's ambiguous reviews and poor ratings, I was a bit skeptical about the movie, but fortunately I did go ahead with it and in the end it turned out to be quite rewarding!!!


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