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Emmerich believes the story behind 'Anonymous'

Peter Mongillo
Director Roland Emmerich tells a different story about who wrote 'Hamlet' in 'Anonymous.'

Roland Emmerich doesn't believe in the premise of most of his films. He doesn't believe that aliens are going to destroy the planet on the Fourth of July, or that the world is going to end in 2012 based on a Mayan prophecy. He does believe, contrary to a chorus of scholars who argue otherwise, that a conspiracy took place during the second half of the 16th century to hide the identity of the man who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare.

That's the premise of "Anonymous," which Emmerich directs. The plot follows the theory that Shakespeare was the pen name of nobleman Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. In the film, De Vere (Rhys Ifans), an orphan raised in the house of one Queen Elizabeth's top ministers, William Cecil (David Thewlis), begins writing at an early age. He cranks out "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at age 9 before he is forced to stop publishing because his Puritan benefactors believe writing and theater to be evil.

Along the way, a series of Shakespearean events depict De Vere's upbringing, including a behind-the-curtain murder that looks an awful lot like the part in "Hamlet" when the angry prince murders Polonius.

Later, when De Vere is grown up, he conspires against Cecil in favor of the Earl of Essex, who is plotting to take power. He finds a young playwright, Ben Jonson, who has been jailed for criticizing the monarchy in his work, and begins feeding him plays to stage. Jonson, who believes he can make his own name (and did), refuses to take credit, keeping De Vere's secret but allowing an illiterate actor by the name of Shakespeare to claim authorship.

Eventually, Christopher Marlowe finds out what is happening, Cecil's son Robert (Edward Hogg), who has replaced his father at the queen's side, learns of the plot, "Richard III" enrages the commoners and something of an action film breaks out on screen. The story wraps up with a series of soap operalike reveals that are guaranteed to make anyone looking for a conservative period piece about Elizabethan England blush.

Emmerich says that as a director, the idea of making a film that portrays the power of storytelling was appealing. "It's very rare where you can make a movie, where you can have a scene that asks 'what is mightier, the pen or the sword?', " he said. "I've always wanted to do that."

Though the theory advanced by the film has been widely criticized, including a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, Emmerich stands by the work as a story rooted in fact. He points to a list of historical inconsistencies as evidence to support his claim, including the fact that Shakespeare's daughters were illiterate, inconsistencies in records of where the playwright lived and Ben Jonson's later hailing of Shakespeare as "the soul of the age" after failing to mention him for many years.

"I'm 100 percent convinced that William Shakespeare from Stratford didn't write these plays," he says.

Even if people don't buy the story, Emmerich says that he hopes "Anonymous" can contribute to the way in which period films are made.

Since his last film set in the past, 2000's American Revolution revenge story "The Patriot," technology has changed to make it much easier to depict a historical moment, Emmerich says.

Most of the movie was shot in front of a green screen, rather than having to build a full-sized theater, he says.

"We produced the movie quite cheaply, and it looks pretty good," he says. "A lot of directors have come to me asking how I did this and that, and I kind of think this is one thing I can bring to this genre, because I know a lot about visual effects."

pmongillo@statesman.com