"Anonymous" is the perfect film for our age of teaching the controversy of sham conspiracy theories and cartoonish TV scholarship, in which lines and boxes are poor substitutes for the connective tissue of argument.
The film takes as a presupposition the hypothesis that William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays and poems credited to him. "Anonymous" cleverly deploys this scholarly fraud as a key element of a political thriller about the scheming succession to Queen Elizabeth I. As a political thriller the film is, like much of Roland Emmerich's directorial work ("2012," "The Day After Tomorrow"), wearying and leaden.
"Anonymous" takes its cues from the Oxfordians - the group that believes that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans) is the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Lord Oxford was a leading light of the Elizabethan age, dashing, rich and well-traveled. The claim for Lord Oxford's authorship is largely based on the spurious and elitist point of view that Shakespeare himself lacked the education, experience and social connections necessary to conjure the inner lives of kings and princes.
The Oxfordian hypothesis is hamstrung by two key problems. First, if the Earl of Oxford had used Shakespeare as a literary beard to avoid sedition charges, it would have required an entire community of actors, playwrights and hangers-on to maintain their silence on the matter - an unlikely prospect in a scene rife with gossip, clashing ambitions and professional jealousies. Second, what was Oxford's motive for not declaring himself posthumously? "Anonymous" has no answer for the first objection. As to the second, well, therein lies the tale.
Screenwriter John Orloff's plot suggests that Lord Oxford swore to remain anonymous to cover up the sordid nature of his affair with Queen Elizabeth, here played with withered majesty by Vanessa Redgrave. It also suggests that Lord Oxford had Shakespeare (a buffoonish, barely literate actor played by Rafe Spall) take credit for his plays in order to rile the lower classes into backing his choice to succeed Queen Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex.
Much of the detail as it pertains to Lord Oxford's biography and the diverse cast of courtiers vying to influence the royal succession, is quite accurate. The villains of the piece - royal counselors William and Robert Cecil - are gleefully scheming. Even more amusing are efforts to forge links between Lord Oxford's life and Shakespeare's plays, including a murder committed by young Oxford that prefigures (spoiler alert) the death of Polonius at the hands of Hamlet.
While "Anonymous" is a bore, it is very easy on the eyes. Mr. Emmerich excels in creating cinematic spectacle, even if it is in the service of a poor cause. The costumes and interior sets are excellent. His version of Elizabethan London, largely built from the ground up and not computer-generated, is probably the most compelling aspect of the film, especially the replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. By comparison the arctic, desolate Lord Oxford, his political rivals and Queen Elizabeth appear flat. What "Anonymous" is missing, despite its literary subject matter, is poetry.
CREDITS: Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by John Orloff
RATING: PG-13 for sexual situations, violence and perfidy
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS