'Anonymous' Review: Unfocused but Engaging Look at Shakespeare Conspiracy Theory

William Shakespeare once wrote, “To thine own self be true.” It’s an ironic line, considering that hundreds of years after his death, some still question whether or not Shakespeare is actually the one who wrote all of his famous plays.

The new film ‘Anonymous’ explores the theory that Shakespeare, played with relish by Rafe Spall, wasn’t the great writer readers know him to be. In fact, the film depicts him as an incompetent, manipulative monster who is all too willing to fraudulently accept the credit for writing some of the greatest plays ever written.

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In one of the film’s most bizarre twists, it begins in the contemporary world, where an actor introduces the theory that Shakespeare, who he states came from a poorly-educated family, is not a great writer at all. The story then flashes back to the destruction of the Globe Theater. A man in the theater hides some documents underneath the stage and soon enough, the story then flashes to another time period.

If this doesn’t sound disjointed, it should. The story doesn’t really know where to begin and throughout, it flashes backwards and forwards lacking the sophistication of smarter films that could handle such transitions more smoothly.

Eventually, the story settles down and introduces the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), a creative writer who lacks an outlet to showcase his plays. The Earl wants to share his gifts, but as he notes, “In my world, one does not write plays.” He recruits the young writer Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to help him with his plans. Jonson, who Shakespeare derides as a writer with no voice, will be credited as the plays’ author. Before that can happen, Jonson’s obnoxious friend William Shakespeare steps up and starts taking the credit for the popular plays.

Director Roland Emmerich, who previously helmed big-budget blockbusters like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ surprisingly does a good job creating a strong atmosphere for this story. This isn’t the type of special effects-laden film that he’s known for, so it’s nice to see him using his talents in new ways.

Unfortunately, that satisfaction doesn’t carry over to the script, which fumbles the film’s sturdy premise. John Orloff, who previously worked on ‘Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole’ and ‘A Mighty Heart,’ has written an unfocused script that introduces too many forgettable characters as it plods along. That becomes painfully obvious as the story arbitrarily moves from one time period to another. Cutting out the unnecessary story lines and the unneeded cuts from period to period could have served this plot very well, forcing it to focus and spend more time on what it does right.

‘Anonymous’ skillfully presents Shakespeare as a narcissistic drunk who loves taking credit for another man’s idea. If this story is taken as fiction, his performance is fun to watch. In fact, the three main men in the story are played convincingly by Ifans, Amesto and Spall. Additionally, Vanessa Redgrave fully commits to her role as Queen Elizabeth I, a monarch whose sexual impropriety is explored in depth.

Despite its flaws, ‘Anonymous’ has a few interesting ideas at its heart and it is staged well by Emmerich. I don’t believe that Shakespeare was the manipulative jerk that he’s portrayed as in this film, but I understand that other people feel differently. The film depicts an alternate reality in an interesting, but ultimately unfocused, way.

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