Maybe Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. Maybe he was actually Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, anonymously propagating poetic theatrical subversion and political intrigue that culminated in the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I. Sure, and maybe this is a great idea for a Roland Emmerich movie.
The only big reveal in “Anonymous” is the embarrassing intellectual insecurity of a grandstanding disaster-epic hack assailing the Bard’s reputation. It’s ironic given the snobbery of this particular conspiracy theory, which basically holds that only a nobleman, not some humble-born Stratford kid, could have written such lofty stuff.
A credit to the theorists, at least, “Anonymous” doesn’t bother understanding or caring about what makes the stuff so lofty. There’s talk about the importance of “the work” (presumably not including the ten-odd plays somehow written after de Vere died), but obviously no ear for poetry or feel for theater, let alone for human nature.
Emmerich’s affinity for de Vere makes sense when you consider the latter’s actual verse, which seems about commensurate, finesse-wise, with the likes of “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” There is evidence in “Anonymous” of de Vere knowing the machinations of statecraft, and pantomimes of his general sensitivity. And there is a sizable role for Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Ben Jonson, which only amounts to a missed opportunity: While we’re in such an audaciously apocryphal mood, why not go on to say the events depicted in “Anonymous” are actually what inspired Jonson to satirize greed and gullibility so keenly in “The Alchemist,” his illustrious con-men comedy of 1610? Oh, right, let’s not, you know, over-think it.
It’s never been easy for movies to show how a great writer might have written. It is not any easier to show how he might not have written. What worked so well as dramatic fuel in “Amadeus” — the exquisitely tense blend of honor and envy that comes with witnessing a sublime and absolute talent — gets squandered by “Anonymous.” A film about the world’s most famous playwright, however contrary, should at least hope to send its audience to a stage or a bookshelf, not to Google or Wikipedia. So it goes. When God or Godzilla or aliens finally do decide to destroy this world, as they have in earlier Emmerich films, maybe we’ll deserve it for being so unable to resist crapping on our own cultural achievements.
Of course Emmerich’s little romp isn’t really any kind of outrage. (Greater minds than his have disputed Shakespeare’s authorship before.) It’s just sort of a bore. Most scenes, incoherent to begin with, also are so cheesily overacted that even famous English actors somehow sound like they’re doing stage-faked English accents. The cast includes Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Derek Jacobi, Sebastian Armesto, Edward Hogg, and Rafe Spall. The screenwriter is John Orloff. The takeaway is Emmerich’s usual idea of showmanship, not coincidentally an epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing.