Historical truth can be fascinating on its own, but weaving in a few unsubstantiated rumors and a little salacious fiction is always an option when it comes to creating an entertaining story. However distinguishing fact from fabrication in Anonymous proves to be as mind-boggling as the first act of this movie.
Opening in present day New York, the movie jumps back in time to the era of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), poet Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and playwright William Shakespeare (portrayed in this movie by Rafe Spall as an opportunistic buffoon who resorts to blackmail). In the first scene, Ben runs through the grimy streets of London loaded down with a large parcel. The Queen’s guards are close on hand. When Ben sneaks into a local theater and hides beneath a trap door in the floor, the soldiers expedite his willingness to turn himself in by burning down the building.
Hauled back to the castle and subjected to a brutal beating, Ben has a flashback to the events that brought him to this painful point. Audiences are then introduced to a troupe of London actors and patrons including writer Thomas Dekker (Robert Emms), pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (Tony Way) and Edward the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). All are real figures. Yet the depicted details of their lives may be difficult to validate with the brief records we have from that historical period. We then go further back in time to meet the Earl of Oxford as a young married man (Jamie Campbell Bower) who has lusty interludes with the young Queen of England (Joely Richardson) during his marriage to the daughter of the Queen’s chief advisor William Cecil (David Thewlis). While historical rumors suggest the real Queen had secret children out of wedlock, including Francis Bacon and the Earl of Essex, she maintained throughout her reign as a single woman that she was "The Virgin Queen".
Like the details of the Queen’s private life (some of which is portrayed on screen), this production also advances the controversy that Shakespeare did not pen the famous and prolific lines he is known for. (Director Roland Emmerich gives his own reasons for questioning the author’s authenticity.) Rather it suggests the real playwright and poet was the Earl of Essex, a man driven to write but unable to put his name to his plays in an age when the Queen’s Puritan advisor and his hunchbacked son (Edward Hogg) are working hard to banish what they consider banal and wicked diversions.
While some of the storyline may be disputable, the costuming and art direction along with many of the performances are without question amazing. Still parents should note there are several scenes of sexual activity, brief male buttock nudity, ample cleavage and the depiction and discussion of prostitutes and incest. As well as deceit and underhanded political tactics, swordplay and guns are employed as weapons with numerous characters being killed on screen. In an attempt to squelch an uprising among the peasants, the armed guards also fire cannons upon a gathering crowd. And one unlucky character that displeases the Queen loses his head at the chopping block.
With snippets of Shakespeare’s works presented on screen, this production may encourage viewers to haul out their dusty copies of the writer’s sonnets and plays to determine their own stance on the debate. However unless audiences are willing to do some research, it is difficult to untangle the facts from the fiction in this intriguing tale of author identity.