An Ode to Anonymous
Shall I compare thee to a Michael Bay?
Thou art more funny, and less desperate.
Roland Emmerich, who gave us Independence Day,
Now tackles Stratford's finest, and affairs of state.
Billed as the story of Shakespeare the fraud, an actor who didn't really write the plays and sonnets that bear his name, Anonymous is not really about William Shakespeare at all. Instead, it's a conspiracy theory about authorship and authority, looking at a creator denied credit for his work. In this case, the creator is the Earl Of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), and his creations are both his writing and his son. In each case, cultural norms prevent him from claiming authorship/parenthood, and so the writing bears the name of bumptious actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), while the son is raised as the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), never knowing who his parents really were.
It should probably go without saying that this is mostly nonsense, historically speaking. Still, one can't imagine the real William Shakespeare (the man who re-imagined Protestant martyr John "Falstaff" Oldcastle as one of literature's most famous libertines, who turned a rash young Scottish king who died in battle into a gentle old monarch murdered in bed by Macbeth, and who gave a convenient coastline to Bohemia in central Europe) would have quibbled overmuch at the historical inaccuracies of a mainstream thriller with tragicomic ambitions.
Anonymous succeeds where the comedy is concerned: Rafe Spall is very funny as a Loadsamoney style Bard who laps up the praise for "his" plays. A scene where he shows up in a tavern to crow about his newly purchased family coat of arms plausibly evokes all the pride of a newly-minted wide-boy showing off his personalised number-plates.
It's a shame that there's not more of this side of things; the tragic element is less successful on screen than it could be, through no fault of the engaging cast. As the film would have it, the Earl Of Oxford's legacy ought to have been a son with a good claim to the throne of England, plus a body of literature with a good claim to be the finest ever written. That he's denied both should be heartbreaking, but in truth the film is too much of a romp, and tries to cram too much in, to really reach us on that level.
Or, in other words:
"Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory."
- Henry V, by William Shakespeare. Or was it?*