These days, the term "Anonymous" conjures up visions of unknown activists trying to influence history from the wings. They write things, and that writing changes society. In his film of the same name, director Roland Emmerich seems to be suggesting that this idea is not exactly new, and that the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare were essentially motivated by the same desire. He takes the age-old mystery of "Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" and turns it into a political thriller.
If it's difficult for you to imagine a historical costume drama done by the director of "Universal Soldier," "Stargate," "Independence Day," "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012," you are not alone. :-) I suspected that the screenplay (by John Orloff) came first, and that Emmerich discovered it and became enamored of it, and a quick trip to the IMDb verifies that this intuition was correct. It also informs me that Emmerich, taking advantage of the money he made on the previous films, paid for this whole movie out of his own pocket, so that he could have full control of the film, without interference from any studio. It shows.
It's not a bad movie at all. And this is something I never thought I'd find myself saying about a Roland Emmerich movie. The cast is simply to die for: Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth the elder; her daughter Joely Richardson as Elizabeth the younger; Rafe Spall as Shakespeare (a talentless clod of an actor); Sebastian Arnesto as Ben Johnson (a talented playwright, but not even in the same galaxy of greatness as the author of Shakespeare's plays); David Thewlis as William Cecil; Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil; Derek Jacobi doing the prologue; Jaime Campbell Bower (from "Camelot") as the younger Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; and Rhys Ifans as the older Edward de Vere, and the real author of Shakespeare's work.
As presented, the plot is not at all a scholarly argument for the Earl of Oxford's authorship of these plays. It is instead a clever reimagining of historical events (some treated as loosely as Shakespeare himself treated actual history) to turn the answer to the mystery that scholars argue about into a taut political thriller. In Orloff's/Emmerich's vision, Edward de Vere wrote the plays and published them under someone else's name for no less a reason that to foment revolution, change the course of history, and determine the next king of England.
And damnit, that reimagining kinda worked for me. The sets and costumes are pitch perfect, the performances are good, and the potential is there for a good time to be had by all. Like anything related to Shakespeare, the more you know about him and his work, the better this film will be for you. There are so many asides and in-jokes that I cannot begin to go into them. Orloff really did his research. Except for the part about Edward de Vere having died before at least 10 of Shakespeare's plays were written, that is. But that's just a nitpick, and should not stand in the way of writing a good drama. Those kinds of historical nitpicks did not deter Shakespeare, and they don't deter Orloff and Emmerich. All of them understand that "The play's the thing," and that history doesn't mean diddleysquat compared to that.