Review: Anonymous

The pride of poets and scourge of students everywhere, William Shakespeare’s legacy has lingered for centuries. With 38 plays and 154 sonnets to his name, the playwright left an indelible imprint upon literature, illustrated by the esteem his most famous works – Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth among them – are held in. Hailing from Stratford-upon-Avon, he came to fame after moving to London, with comedies, tragedies and histories following throughout a prolific 25 year period. Yet despite the enduring nature of his prose, little is known about his private life, leading to considerable speculation about his appearance, beliefs and authorship.

So common are theories surrounding the origins of his efforts that the Shakespeare authorship question abounds. It posits that the works attributed to the scribe are those of another, with variations proposing more than 70 different candidates. Anti-Stratfordians have contemplated philosopher Francis Bacon, aristocrat William Stanley, and dramatist Christopher Marlowe among the likely culprits, along with courtier Edward de Vere. The purported circumstances surrounding the latter forms the basis of Roland Emmerich’s foray into historical thriller territory, known simply as Anonymous.

In Elizabethan England, creative pursuits have been declared seditious by the queen’s chief advisor (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2). His influence looms over the sovereign herself (Vanessa Redgrave, The Whistleblower), as well as his son-in-law de Vere (Rhys Ifans, Greenberg), with the matriarch kept away from artistry, and the nobleman forbidden to create his own. Determined to indulge his talents, de Vere plots to disseminate his texts, choosing struggling writer Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto, Bright Star) as his cover. Alas, ambitious actor Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, One Day) assumes the role, with dire political and personal consequences following when his plays become popular.

Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) and the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans)

Contempt tends to follow Emmerich’s productions, with the writer/director hardly known for his weighty subject matter. Instead, speculation about alien invasions (Independence Day), global warming (The Day After Tomorrow) and the end of the world (2012) are his common topics, focusing on the fanciful over the factual. Initially, Anonymous appears to be a departure for the helmer, in his first costume drama. However, the film’s emphasis on scandal ensures it unravels as a standard Emmerich production.

William Cecil (David Thewlis) and younger Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson)

With the theatricality and aggrandising actors required of the topic, Anonymous has all the hallmarks of a period piece. Indeed, despite overacting, Ifans and his cast mates put in competent – if anachronistic and inaccurate – portrayals of the historical figures, spouting their lines with seriousness. Their efforts are entertaining and engaging, even if John Orloff’s (A Might Heart) script lacks the subtlety to do their performances justice. Although an improvement on Emmerich’s usual oeuvre, Anonymous lacks the substance or intelligence so obviously strived for.

Anonymous is released in Australia on November 3rd.

Director: Roland Emmerich

Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, Xavier Samuel, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis,

Edward Hogg, Sam Reid

About Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts writer, and film festival organiser. She writes for artsHub, Concrete Playground, FilmInk, Metro Magazine and Screen Education, and Trespass, of course. Her written contributions have popped up at ACMI, Junkee, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, SBS Film, Televised Revolution, At The Cinema, and the World Film Locations book series. Sarah also chats about film on ABC radio, dabbles on her own site (, and tweets at @swardplay.