Hamlet is about Hamlet’s resentment of his uncle; Othello is about Othello’s possessiveness of Desdemona ; Twelfth Night is about Viola’s love of Orsino. You would think, therefore, that Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous, which promotes the theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, wrote Shakespeare’s plays would be about a tussle between de Vere and Shakespeare.
In the two hours’ passage of the film, Oxford (a wooden Rhys Ifans) and Shakespeare (played as a fame-seeking semi-illiterate bumpkin by Rafe Spall) meet rarely and then only in passing. The real conflict that drives the film arises from a plot to place one of Queen Elizabeth’s bastard sons on the throne of England when she dies. Opposing the conspirators is Robert Cecil, Elizabeth’s Puritan adviser, played with appropriately gloating malice by Edward Hogg.
As the plot develops, de Vere — the father of one of the would-be usurpers — occasionally passes manuscripts to playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), who arranges for their production.
And that’s about all the film offers on the authorship controversy.
As a piece of conspiracy drama, the film succeeds. The acting is competent (although Vanessa Redgrave is given little to do as the aging Elizabeth) and the plot — apart from the authorship issue — is well-constructed. The result is entertaining. But the film is not particularly about who wrote the plays, nor about Shakespeare, so do not see it with the expectation of an erudite dinner conversation to follow.
Emmerich, best known for his FX-rich end-of -the-world epics such as The Day After and Independence Day, cannot resist over-the-top action. So there’s a scene in which a mob storms out of a production of Richard the Third intent on killing the hunchbacked Cecil and runs into an ambush of heavily-armed soldiers. Slaughter ensues. I suspect this is a piece of fiction, dreamed up by writer John Orloff as an excuse for Emmerich to insert some computer graphics.