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Jeremy Clarke

Roland Emmerich
Certificate 12a, 130 mins


Bookended by Derek Jacobi arriving at a present day theatre to go onstage and introduce the film's central conceit to an audience, this asks the question: Was that body of work attributed to Shakespeare in fact written by someone else entirely? Actually, it doesn't so much investigate the question as tell a story based on one of the alternate theories of Shakespearian authorship: in this case, that their real writer was Edward De Vere, Earl Of Oxford.

Rhys Ifans is memorable as De Vere. He's supported by a who's who cast of British acting talent all giving incredible performances, from the real-life mother and daughter Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave as the younger and older Elizabeth I, David Thewlis as her scheming advisor Lord William Cecil, and Edward Hogg as his equally dangerous son, Robert. Sebastian Armesto is the playwright Ben Jonson, set up by De Vere as the high visibility author of the plays and Rafe Spall as foppish actor/stage manager William Shakespeare who grabs that public authorship and runs with it. Equally compelling is the plot of aristocratic intrigue around the succession to the English throne. For good measure, there's material about the Queen's sex life as well - presumably adhering to the idea of the Virgin Queen is considered a non-starter in our sex-obsessed age and, admittedly, it makes for a compelling story.

Which brings us to the strangest aspect of this film: its director. German-born Emmerich is a familiar A-list man, generally reviled by critics as the driving force behind such vacuous money-spinners as Independence Day, Godzilla and 2012. His films tend to be cheesy, full of actors sleepwalking through their roles and missed narrative opportunities shorn up by massive special effects.

They also feel like films made for the sake of money rather than because someone is passionate about them. Anonymous is different: it has great performances  and doesn't once misstep. The only reason you know this to be an Emmerich picture is that if it has to call on big budget effects (wide CG shots of Elizabethan London, an aerial shot of a mob rampaging through London streets) it does so effortlessly. But there's a passion and integrity absent from his other films.

While a knowledge of Shakespeare's plays may help, its lack won't detract from one's enjoyment; the film may, indeed, provide an entry point for those unfamiliar with them. More important is the portrait of Elizabethan England, from lowlife actors and audiences  through lords and ladies to the Queen, with accompanying political intrigues to boot. A far cry from the traditional British historical drama, this is a terrific piece of work and the year's biggest surprise.

Jeremy Clarke