In Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the commoners who populated the cramped standing-room-only section below the stage were referred to as the groundlings. These were the members of the audience who supposedly wanted ribald humor, mayhem, and good old-fashioned entertainment from their theater experiences. Director Roland Emmerich's entire career has been about making movies for the modern-day equivalent of the groundlings. But with Anonymous, his historical drama set in Shakespearean times, Emmerich ambitiously aims to please the entire theater.
The movie stars Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. De Vere is a writer and poet, although his position in court and his wife's sensibilities prevent him from making his work -- with its very obvious political leanings -- public. He's opposed to the influence that the Essex family hold over Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), and he attempts to turn public opinion against them by finding someone else to take public credit for his politically charged work. That way, plays like Richard III and Macbeth can be performed and will change the opinions of the common man. He first attempts to hire Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), the creative director of the Globe Theater, but when he balks because of the possibility of being arrested, an illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) quickly takes credit for the plays. Now, as the elderly Queen faces a choice about the line of succession, Edward's secret past with her is about to be revealed, and the British people are whipped into a frenzied mob thanks to the power of the theater.
Right from the opening scene, a preamble featuring Derek Jacobi arriving at a theater and delivering a monologue that entertainingly and swiftly establishes the themes, setting, and tone of the entire film, it's apparent that Emmerich isn't out of his league at all. Thanks to a solid script by John Orloff and a very game cast, the director thrusts us into the middle of a complicated political battle without ever confusing us. And once we understand the various factions that are maneuvering for influence, de Vere's plan becomes even more engrossing, since he's been emotionally attached to the Queen for nearly his entire life; for Edward, it's personal, not political.
Ifans shines as the center of the movie. Although he's still best known for his comedic work -- his signature role was the uncouth Welsh roommate in Notting Hill -- he's got dramatic chops as well, something anyone who saw Greenberg can affirm. Ifans makes de Vere a complicated figure, a man who understands that he has a remarkable talent, but who quickly learns that being able to create beautiful works of art is no guarantee of happiness. De Vere is a dour man trapped in a bad marriage, beset on all sides by forces who know more than he does. He's a charismatically tragic figure, making it entirely plausible that he could create some of the most-tragic characters in the history of the English language.
Emmerich still doesn't entirely abandon his signature set pieces. There's a march on a castle that features thousands of extras -- or at least thousands of CGI extras -- and there are seedy rumors about Edward's past that give the film a gossipy kick. Also, you don't need to know anything beyond the basics of Shakespeare to appreciate Anonymous, and it doesn't leave you out in the cold as long as you recognize the names of his most-famous plays. However, the movie is indeed inspired by the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare's works were written by someone else, with de Vere's name floated as one potential candidate. None of that, however, need concern audience members. After all, the man responsible for modern-day disaster epics like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 is still more interested in entertaining his audience than in serving up a dry historical examination.
The thought of Emmerich tackling this subject matter is as incongruous as Charlie Sheen becoming a national spokesman for the Latter Day Saints. But, to his credit, he's taken his main character's ambitions to heart. Anonymous works as a period political thriller, a tragic romance, and a history lesson; it plays well to both the groundlings and the wealthy patrons who can afford plush seats. And that's something hardly anyone expected from Emmerich.