REVIEW: Rhys Ifans Brings Roland Emmerich's Mammoth Historical Thriller Anonymous Down to Earth

Movieline Score:

Sometimes directors with certain strengths try to stretch different muscles and you desperately wish they wouldn't: Woody Allen getting all serious with Interiors comes to mind. But Roland Emmerich, taking a break from cavorting with woolly mammoths and blowing up the world, is onto something with Anonymous, an intricate -- if not terribly convincing -- historical thriller positing that a minor Elizabethan poet named Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and not William Shakespeare, wrote all those plays and sonnets that the world loves so well.

Anonymous isn't so different from Emmerich's other movies -- pictures like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow -- in that it's guided by a grand, ambitious vision. It's also something of a mess, packing in a bit too much of everything when just a few judiciously chosen nuts and bolts would do. But it is, at the very least, a curiosity, one with some clever casting and a few very fine performances at its core.

And I guess it could be true that the person we know as Shakespeare wasn't really Shakespeare. Emmerich treats the possibility solemnly, welcoming us into his movie with a heavy-duty thespian intro by Derek Jacobi: He steps into a theater spotlight to deliver a semi-informative prologue in plummy tones. It turns out, as screenwriter John Orloff (A Mighty Heart) lays the whole thing out for us, that Edward (Rhys Ifans), unwelcome in the court of Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) for reasons that aren't clear until the end, is churning out plays as fast as he can scribble them onto paper. Some of these things he writes just for kicks. (A whole play in iambic pentameter, anyone?) With others, he hopes to effect serious political change, exposing, for example, the machinations of the power-mad father-son duo of William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg), who have entirely too much influence over the queen.

Edward can't send his plays out into the world under his own name, so he enlists the playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to serve as his beard. But somehow, a lazy, bumbling actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) ends up taking credit for them. Meanwhile, Emmerich keeps zapping us into the backstory, in which the young Edward (played by a winsome Jamie Campbell Bower) woos the young Elizabeth (played, in a genius stroke of casting, by Joely Richardson, Redgrave's daughter). Their bedroom frolicking inspires some of Edward's finest romantic wordplay.

If you're not confused yet, you will be once the curly-wigged Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and the ginger-haired Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) enter the picture to stir things up further. Emmerich is so excited about this exotic, fanciful story that he crams too much in, trading excess for clarity. But he does, at least, exercise his propensity for visual grandeur: Working on a relatively slim budget -- this is a historical drama and not a pack-'em-in blockbuster, after all -- he has re-created a reasonably believable facsimile of Elizabethan London using computer-generated effects. Shot by Anna Foerster, with production design by Sebastian T. Krawinkel, the picture looks just right, striking the proper balance between grimy and glowing.

It doesn't hurt that the actors in Anonymous also look great, and three in particular rise to every challenge that's brought to them. Richardson, with her tumble of pale curls, is a living, breathing version of John Millais' Ophelia, but tougher. Redgrave plays her version of the character as if she has become more emotionally vulnerable, not less, with age -- the older Elizabeth just works harder to submerge it beneath her imperious veneer. Redgrave brings an astonishing fragility to the role. Her canny, powerful Elizabeth may act like a tough old bird, but we can see that underneath she has the delicate bones of a goldfinch. As always, Redgrave is glorious to watch.

But it's Rhys Ifans, as the Earl of Oxford, who keeps the movie spinning. Ifans takes dorky, grandiose dialogue and turns it into something almost -- well, Shakespearean. His character has spent his life writing incredible plays and sonnets, but he's forced to hide his identity from the public. As Ifans plays him, he's OK with all that -- it's the personal anguish he's suffered that really matters, and Ifans carries that bruised nobility with him every second. His voice, sonorous and always just faintly sorrowful, reminds me of that of the late, great, Richard Harris. Although Harris was Irish and Ifans is Welsh, they're linked in spirit, rapscallions who can really buckle down and surprise you with their depth and heart. I giggled at parts of Anonymous, especially when our earl's angry, disapproving wife catches him at his desk and bellows, like Gale Sondergaard with PMS, "My God! You're writing again!" But I never laughed at Ifans. When you look into those eyes, you could almost believe that this was the guy who wrote all those sonnets.

[Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a different form, during Movieline's coverage of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.]

Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter.

Follow Movieline on Twitter.


  • Whatever you think of the authorship question, this is a well-made and well-acted film set in one of the most intriguing periods of English history - an era with so many stories to tell. The filmmakers should be commended for that.
    - M. G. Scarsbrook, author of THE MARLOWE CONSPIRACY, an historical novel featuring Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare teaming up to expose a high-level government conspiracy.