New on DVD: Anonymous (2011)

Here’s a sentence I never expected to read, much less write:

Director Roland Emmerich has made a movie of ideas.

Yes, the man who gave the world high-concept, nutritionally light hits like Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 has put on his thinking cap and delivered a Gordian knot of convoluted history from Elizabethan England.

And if his Anonymous is a largely chilly and cerebral affair, it’s positively overflowing with brain-tickling notions.

Nominally this is the story of Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford, a member of the court of Elizabeth I who in some quarters has been credited with being the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

But screenwriter John Orloff rips open a veritable Pandora’s box of daring supposition, not just about the authorship of Hamlet and the other plays but about their subversive political purposes and about Queen Elizabeth’s sex life.

Like the less ambitious Shakespeare in Love, Anonymous takes known facts and slyly extrapolates them into a rich tapestry of possibilities.

Unfolding over 40 years and presented in a jumbled chronology, Anonymous depicts a world of deadly political intrigue. The aging Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave, with chalky makeup and rotten teeth) is childless (or is she?) and refuses to named an heir.

One faction supports her cousin, James of Scotland. Another gathers around the swashbuckling Earl of Essex, widely believed to be the Queen’s bastard son.

Among Essex’s supporters is the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), now firmly in middle age. Oxford has ignored his once-vast investments to write plays and poetry. He does so in secret — theaters are regularly persecuted by the Queen’s powerful Puritan adviser, William Cecil (David Thewlis), and his hunchbacked, resentful son Robert (Edward Hogg).

But Oxford cannot stop himself from indulging his literary compulsions. His head, he says, is filled with characters and stories.

“I would go mad if I didn’t write down the voices.”

Oxford’s plays are more than mere entertainment. They have been cannily fashioned to stir Elizabethan audiences to the cause of Essex.

Since William Cecil is a major supporter of James of Scotland, Oxford lampoons him in Hamlet through the pompous character of Polonius. And the deformed villainous title character of Richard III bears an uncanny resemblance to the Robert Cecil, Oxford’s brother-in-law.

Unable to take credit for these works, Oxford has a semi-illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) pose as the author. This egotistical buffoon (and possible murderer) becomes the toast of London.

Wait, there’s more. Much of Anonymous takes place in flashback, with the young Oxford (Jamie Campell Bower) having a passionate affair with the somewhat older Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson, Redgrave’s daughter...a nice bit of casting). Later on this coupling will be the source of a gasp-inducing revelation.

With all this skullduggery and intrigue Anonymous has no shortage of provocative material. Its major shortcoming is its emotional neutrality — one can find its ideas fascinating but there’s little genuine feeling beneath the surface.

But particularly satisfying are the depictions of Elizabethan theater. During a performance of Henry V the St. Crispin’s Day speech galvanizes the audience of groundlings, who rise as one. The line between art and life is erased, the playgoers in effect become the English army, eager to engage a foreign foe. It’s a breathtaking moment, a delicious bit of cinema/theatrical magic.


About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

Kansas City Public Library on Facebook  Kansas City Public Library Movies on Twitter  Kansas City Public Library on Flickr  Kansas City Public Library on YouTube  KC Unbound RSS feed