Directed by Roland Emmerich
If, as Shakespeare asserts, the play's the thing, then Anonymous almost works.
The premise of Anonymous is that William Shakespeare did not write all those great plays. It's a notion that's been discussed in theatre classes, but it's also one of those historical topics that merely gives the mind a tiny “what if' morsel to toy with before moving on to something more significant. It's kind of like all the theories surrounding Jack the Ripper. Did they get it right in From Hell? Or was it somebody else?
In this case, the proposed, anonymous author of all those plays is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who used Shakespeare, an illiterate hack, as his cover.
Granted, Google didn't exist in Shakespeare's day, but it does exist for Emmerich and screen scribe John Orloff. And while one certainly cannot believe everything that's read on the Internet, it doesn't take much digging to find niblets such as this same theory being proffered more than 90 years ago by a guy named J. Thomas Looney (no relation to the Tunes). For what it's worth, it's a theory allegedly endorsed by Orson Welles, who in turn freaked out all of America with his infamous Halloween radio broadcast of War of the Worlds back in 1938. There's even an entire Web site, the Shakespeare Oxford Society, dedicated to establishing de Vere as the one true Shakespeare.
Even so, presenting Shakespeare as a virtual knit-wit who couldn't even write his own name is stretching things a bit too far in order to make the premise seem more credible.
Students: Don't believe everything you read on the Internet. And, for the love of Pete, question what you see in the movies.
Stepping aside from the dubious narrative, technically – and theatrically – speaking this is German director Roland Emmerich's best movie.
Shakespeare: To be...
Photo: Columbia Pictures
But hold that praise up against his other works to realize its true worth. Emmerich is also responsible for pure garbage like 10,000 B.C., big budget busts like Godzilla (1998), and quasi-respectable fare like Stargate. Of course, he's also known for blowing up the White House in Independence Day.
Given that oeuvre of fantasy films, Anonymous sticks out as a thematic exception along the lines of Emmerich's The Patriot. In this case, it's a visually impressive piece of work. Indeed, a couple stand-out scenes enliven this costume drama that focuses more on intrigue than action. Those scenes, through the magic of CGI, recreate 16th century London in a remarkably detailed, vivid fashion. It's a visual adrenaline boost to an otherwise sleepy story.
Therein lies the biggest problem with Anonymous: It's rather dull, and that's more unforgivable than the (looney) premise itself. This is the kind of historical revisitation that should inspire further investigation, whether one is a Stratfordian, an Oxfordian, or insouciant. Falling short of that heightened level of interest is its biggest failure.
Screenwriter Orloff found the right elements to pull together from Mariane Pearl's account of her husband's capture and murder in A Mighty Heart. Here, the broader canvas of widespread political intrigue, distanced by more than 400 years, proves to be a bit too much. The intent is an epic and nothing says "epic" more than selecting two actresses to fill one role; somewhat confusingly, Joely Richardson plays young Queen Elizabeth I while Vanessa Redgrave portrays the Queen's later years. It would've worked better to see Richardson tackle the role from start to finish.
Earl of Oxford: ... or not to be.
Photo: Columbia Pictures
No doubt an attempt to lend some credibility to the story, it's a pleasant surprise to see famed English actor Derek Jacobi (who collaborated with Sir Laurence Olivier on several occasions) start things off in a modern Broadway theatre, taking the stage to set the story in motion before the magic of the cinema takes over and the story moves back in time four centuries.
And it's also fun to see Mark Rylance, a terrific Shakespearean actor, take on the minor role of... well... a Shakespearean actor.
While on the topic, Rhys Ifans (The Lizard in next year's The Amazing Spider-Man) and Rafe Spall (Shaun of the Dead) are certainly watchable as the Earl of Oxford and Shakespeare, respectively.
Those performances, garnished with some nice visuals, make Anonymous a big budget curiosity. It's ambitious in scope, but unconvincing in execution.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.