The theme of Anonymous, the big-budget potboiler slated to open on the nation's screens Friday, Oct. 28, is a stunner to anyone unfamiliar with the controversy swirling over the legitimacy of Shakespeare's canon.
But the real stunner is how good the film is.
Not content with a tongue-in-cheek conceit like Shakespeare In Love, the Oscar winner that poked delicate fun at Shakespeare's attempt to craft Romeo and Juliet, Anonymous not only tackles the question, "Was Shakespeare a fraud?" but bulldozes anyone or anything that disputes the theory that the Bard was an unsavory fellow. In fact, the film portrays Shakespeare as not only a fraud but a blackmailing, thieving murderer.
If the movie wasn't so wonderfully entertaining, the plot would fall flat as an Oliver Stone flop, who was infamous for taking liberties with JFK and Nixon. But with gorgeous stagecraft--the production boasts more than 70 beautiful hand-built sets recreating Elizabethan London--a very smart, dense script and some Oscar-worthy performances, Anonymous is one of the year's best.
The film is certain to rile purists with its theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was not only an incestuous lover of Queen Elizabeth but also the true and only author of the works of Shakespeare.
"I can't lie and say that I'm convinced that it was actually Oxford," Rhys Ifans, who plays the earl, told BW at the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "But I'm adamant that it was not a guy called William Shakespeare from Stratford."
Matthew Hansen, a published Shakespeare scholar and Boise State professor, said that while he anxiously awaits the film's debut, healthy skepticism of the movie's plot should be the order of the day.
"What's problematic with the entire question of authorship is that there has been this build-up over time of Shakespeare as this really unique, individual genius," said Hansen.
"The reality of playwriting in the 16th and 17th centuries is that it looked a lot more like modern movie scripts are produced," he continued. "Hollywood films almost never come from a single writer who does the whole thing start to finish, it's more often a team or collaboration.
"The same was true for the vast majority of plays in the early modern period. We know for a fact that Ben Johnson collaborated on a number of these plays. Macbeth is now widely held to be at least partly written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton."
Hansen was quick to point out that anytime a highly acclaimed film moves the conversation regarding Shakespeare back into popular culture, it's a good thing.
"But I think as soon as we start seriously turning to big-budget Hollywood films for where we learn our history, we're in trouble," he added. "The two Elizabeth movies, starring Cate Blanchett, were wonderful films--great costume detail and architecture. Amazingly well done but not good history."
The performances in Anonymous are superb, led by Ifans, whom fans may recognize primarily for comic roles in Notting Hill and The Replacements. But here, he is catapulted into leading man territory as Oxford, the centerpiece of the film's storm.
Of particular note are the tag-team performances of Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson, who portray Elizabeth in her older and younger years. They are as skilled as they are beautiful, and Redgrave is sure to nab another Academy Award nomination for supporting actress.
Anonymous is nothing if not self-important. The film explodes off the screen in its first few seconds with a cornered Ben Jonson arrested by guards as the Globe Theatre burns to the ground. Director Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow) appears to be overly anxious to impress with gravitas. This didn't surprise Hansen.
"They tend to take themselves very seriously and tend to present their evidence in a very serious way," said Hansen. "But more often than not, they completely misrepresent the evidence. They make claims of fact that are deliberately misleading or erroneous."
Fact or fiction, Anonymous is a great film. Its argument should be challenged, but its entertainment value is undeniable.