Saturday 20 January 2018

Review: Anonymous * *

(12A, general release)

Paul Whitington

In Anonymous, a fantasy by Roland Emmerich, we get to meet the real Shakespeare. Or rather, we get to meet the man whom Emmerich and various other conspiracy theorists have suggested is the real author of the 38 plays and 150-odd poems that form the most revered body of work in English literature.

A theory, first posited in the 20s by a status-obsessed Newcastle schoolteacher called J Thomas Looney, suggests that the real creator of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and so on was not (perish the thought) a tradesman's son from Stratford but one Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford and a great favourite at the court of Elizabeth until he soiled his bib by humping one of the queen's maids of honour.

Emmerich has been obsessed with this theory for the past decade, and Anonymous states the case with great force and no subtlety. Rhys Ifans plays Edward De Vere, a foppish nobleman who appears to idle around his vast estate but is a secret scribbler of plays and poems that capture the essence of the human soul. As it was unheard of for a man of his status to dabble in the theatre, he chooses a proxy to pretend to be their author. He gives them to Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), but he has ambitions of his own and persuades an illiterate actor called Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to pretend he wrote them instead.

Not content with this ridiculous scenario, Emmerich then throws in a bewildering court intrigue involving de Vere, Elizabeth and her scheming advisors William and Robert Cecil. When not dashing off masterpieces, Emmerich's de Vere carries on a passionate affair with the queen, a tryst that is bound to end badly, and does. This backstory quickly descends into utter incoherence and, as portrayed by Spall, Shakespeare emerges as a crass and psychotic oaf.

Anonymous has about as much gravitas as your average Gaeity panto, but I found it hugely entertaining, though not perhaps in an entirely wholesome way.

The best moment in this absurd film comes when Mark Rylance beautifully delivers the opening speech from Richard III and the real Shakespeare's peerless verse soars above the surrounding verbiage.

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