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Rhys Ifans in Anonymous
Friday November 4th, 2011

What Roland Emmerich did to the White House in Independence Day and to Planet Earth in 2012 he has done to the most sacred figure in the history of the English language. It all began in 1920 when an author named J Thomas Looney proposed a theory that the Bard of Stratford was a fraud and that the real author of the Shakespearean canon was in fact a nobleman named Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Since then the Stratfordians (defenders of the Bard) and the Oxfordians (de Vere supporters) have debated this issue with the Stratfordians successfully defending the status quo.

Whatever your opinion this is a good story and it has made for an interesting documentary or two over the years. If there are people willing to swallow theories that Pharaoh Tutankhamen was an extraterrestrial you're bound to find some folks with doubts about who wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Now Columbia Pictures has released Anonymous and it's the Oxfordian Authorship theory on steroids. John Orloff's script cleverly reconstructs the Elizabethan era with its political intrigues over a successor to Elizabeth and the great popular theater highlighted by the works of dramatists like Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, William Shakespeare. But Orloff's Shakespeare endures more slings and arrows than Hamlet could imagine as he is depicted as a foppish buffoon who could barely write his own name let alone Macbeth.

Anonymous faithfully adheres to the Oxfordian version of history: Edward de Vere had the necessary pedigree and education to claim authorship; events and characters in the Shakespearean plays resemble those in Elizabeth's court of which de Vere had personal knowledge and as a member of the aristocracy de Vere would have felt compelled to resort to a pseudonym to avoid a scandal.

Emmerich may have created an uproar in some circles and Stratfordians may even resort to burning him in effigy but I liked Anonymous for what it is: a crackling good costume drama about the lives of the Elizabethan rich and famous. After some initial amusement I found myself going along for the ride and even starting to believe what I was seeing, after all, history records that Marlowe did die mysteriously and Polonius from Hamlet could pass for William Cecil, Elizabeth's chief advisor (how could the Bard know that?) and with a stuffy puritan like Cecil for a father-in-law how could de Vere go public about his plays and just why did Elizabeth take a young Edward de Vere as her ward after the death of his father. There's a lot of interesting questions that offer a cornucopia of opportunities for skillful speculators like Emmerich and Orloff.

There's several good performances here. Rhys Ifans is very good as Edward de Vere, the nobleman whose life as depicted here could easily be the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. Sebastian Armesto is Ben Jonson, a man trying desperately to avoid the wrath of the theater-hating puritans in Elizabeth's court and who watches helplessly while another man takes credit for de Vere's work. Vanessa Redgrave is the older Queen Elizabeth fearful of rebellion and not eager to hand her kingdom over to a son of an adversary like Mary, Queen of Scots.

There's also nice work from Derek Jacobi as the Prologue; Joely Richardson as the young Queen Elizabeth; Rafe Spall as Shakespeare; David Thewlis & Edward Hogg as William Cecil and his son Robert; Xavier Samuel as the Earl of Southampton and Sam Reid as the Earl of Essex.

Is it history? Is it nonsense? It's an entertaining couple of hours.