Who was William Shakespeare? Was he the Bard of Avon, the rags-to-riches playwright whose brilliant command of language produced “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Or was he a drunk, a fraud and a shameless opportunist?
“Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich’s sure-to-be-controversial (at least in academic circles) historical epic, firmly sides with the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, attributing those masterworks to Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford. Here, Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is depicted as a fool.
Whether you’re inclined to discredit Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff’s radical revisionism — incredible enough to strain any imagination — should hardly discourage any appreciation of the movie, which is the director’s most ambitious and satisfying.
Emmerich has spent years (and untold millions) enacting natural disasters in apocalyptic fables like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012.” These days, he’s more intent on destroying Shakespeare’s credibility than the planet, and the resulting drama is at once overwrought and compelling.
Would you believe, for instance, that Queen Elizabeth — played as a youth by Joely Richardson, and as an elderly monarch by Richardson’s real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave — birthed so many illegitimate children that she managed to lose track? And that Shakespeare — or, at least, the man responsible for his writings — might have been one of them?
Take that as a spoiler if you will, but the various rumors still swirling around the Bard and the so-called Virgin Queen have been publicized well enough that they’re not so much shocking as they are painstakingly assembled to fit into a warped timeline.
But who cares? Much as his movie baits Shakespeare’s supporters, Emmerich is no Michael Moore, and “Anonymous” is less a provocation than larger-than-life entertainment, with Ifans (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) its dignified hero.
Critics will interpret the movie as Emmerich’s long-overdue bid for credibility, but while the director’s choice of material seems out of character, his style remains the same.
This is an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink production, a gripping account of cover-ups, betrayals and beheadings, and even a love affair snuffed out before its time — echoed, of course, in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Whether it will be afforded the same respect that greeted “Shakespeare in Love” — another Bard-obsessed bit of fan fiction — is anybody’s guess, though “Anonymous” is a more substantial achievement. In rendering de Vere a tragic hero worthy of the canon, it reminds us that, all questions of authorship aside, the play’s still the thing.
Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg
Written by John Orloff
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes