All Shakespeare’s Plays Were Really Written by Roland Emmerich

10/26/2011 4:00 AM |

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Anon, anon! Anonymous begins by trying, absurdly, to instill its period drama with a sense of present-day urgency: Running late for his performance, Derek Jacobi rushes onstage to introduce a play about the “true” identity of Shakespeare. It’s as if he’s delivering a piece of code-red news to the president—perhaps this history’s-mysteries material, concerning the role played by the Bard’s greatest hits in the Essex Rebellion, is not such an odd fit after all for FX alarmist Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012).

What follows is a Tudor-intrigue tale distinguished by its production design and the relish with which certain cast members—notably, lead Rhys Ifans and the actors who play his father-son antagonists in the film, David Thewlis and Edward Hogg—carry out the obligatory period gestures (slow nods of recognition are big here). In this movie’s version of events, the author subsequently known as Shakespeare is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (Ifans); to bypass the court’s Puritan disdain for art, and to get back in the good graces of former flame Queen Elizabeth I (played by the mother-daughter team of Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave), de Vere arranges to stage his plays under the name of Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto)—until the exceptionally dissipated, and partially illiterate, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) imposes himself upon the scheme.

In its portrayal of Shakespeare as an unreconstructed rake, and Jonson as a writer with “no voice,” John Orloff’s screenplay rather snottily emphasizes that only a nobleman could have produced the timeless history plays. (The movie shows de Vere performing a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a childhood lark.) “All art is political; otherwise it would just be decoration,” asserts de Vere at one point, though the political aspect of his art appears to be less in writing than in releasing it to the public at just the right moment—de Vere selects carefully from his private stock of completed plays to achieve maximum impact for his cause. The real surprise is not the playwright’s unmasking, but that he was apparently more propagandist than belletrist.

Opens October 28