Rhys Ifans in Anonymous
(© Reiner Bajo/Columbia Pictures)
Rhys Ifans in Anonymous
(© Reiner Bajo/Columbia Pictures)
Did William Shakespeare really write almost 40 plays in his short lifetime? In recent years, numerous scholars and playwrights have posited that everyone from Edward De Vere (the Earl of Oxford) to Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, and even Queen Elizabeth I were actually closet drama-writing queens, desperate to see their creations published or, better still, brought to life on the stage.

Roland Emmerich's controversial new film, Anonymous, not only plays the "what if?" game, but sets out to prove that Oxford did indeed write all of Shakespeare's putative prose and poetry. As Sir Derek Jacobi intones in the prologue, "Let me offer you a different story. A darker story... of quills and swords."

The film, which features a script by John Orloff, is a decidedly different -- and less expensive -- undertaking for Emmerich, who is best known for such big-budget extravaganzas as Independence Day and 2012, coming in at a cost of a mere $26 million. "We didn't have the funds to build a twelve-scale model of Elizabethan London or shoot on locations," says Emmerich, adding that he relied on CGI and blue-screen technology to make the film look realistic.

In some ways, Anonymous also relies more heavily on its actors than some of the director's previous works, and the cast is a veritable who's who of British talent. Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower star as the older and younger Earl of Oxford; Vanessa Redgrave and real-life daughter Joely Richardson portray the older and younger Elizabeth I; while Rafe Spall is Shakespeare. As an added bonus, Tony Award winner Mark Rylance plays Henry Condell, one of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (and gets to deliver some of the Bard's most famous speeches).

"It was the longest casting session I ever did and the most interesting," says Emmerich. "I didn't tell most of the people I met what part I was seeing them for; I just wanted to talk in general about the script first, and then I would always ask the most important question: 'Which part in the movie would you like to play?'"

Ifans surprised the director by choosing Oxford. "I thought the correct answer for him was Shakespeare, because Rhys is famous for his comedic talent," says Emmerich. (In the film, Shakespeare is shown to be an almost illiterate second rate actor, who drinks too much and tries to play all the angles.)

"It was just a great story, a political thriller, a mystery," says Ifans. "In the same spirit that Shakespeare, whoever he may be, toyed and twisted with history to reveal the truth, this movie does the same. Fact and fiction often blur."

Jamie Campbell Bower and Joely Richardson in Anonymous
(© Reiner Bajo/Columbia Pictures)
Jamie Campbell Bower and Joely Richardson in Anonymous
(© Reiner Bajo/Columbia Pictures)
Richardson loves the idea that the film will expose more audiences to Shakespeare's work, no matter who wrote it. "What I think really is interesting is that the plays themselves are so incredible," she says.

"They literally encompass every human story--you know, from tragedy to romance to a historical place, and the more you research it, the more interesting it gets. So I see this movie as an absolute celebration of the work. And I love that Roland and John have opened up the debate. It's not a bashing of Shakespeare, it's an exploration of it."

Indeed, whether the audience comes away believing that the erudite Earl of Oxford or the country bumpkin was the true author of the world's greatest dramatic masterpieces, Emmerich and company have also performed the miracle of making audiences see the plays as they might have been performed for the first time -- with the aid of British theater director Tamara Harvey.

"One of the things I really loved about the movie was seeing how Shakespearean drama was presented in the 16th century, how the actors would leave the stage and go into the audience," says Emmerich. "There's that moment in the movie when Henry V is doing the St. Crispin's Day speech, 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," and he kneels down, and everybody in the audience reaches out to him. That was undirected and unscripted. They just did it."