A Shakespeare slam signifying nothing

If Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, who then? According to Anonymous, an airless, bilious, endless pageant of pseudohistory, it was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who hired playwright Ben Jonson to circulate the earl's unsigned plays to producers when an upstart actor named William Shakespeare claimed credit for them.

The film is the work of Roland Emmerich, himself no stranger to speculative fiction. See his 2012, which asks, "Will the world end in earthquakes, tsunami or volcanic eruptions - or all simultaneously?" Or Stargate, which asks, "What if ancient Egyptians populated a desert planet reachable only via cheesy special-effects?"

Anonymous is no more or less far-fetched than Emmerich's prior efforts. But it is much, much more confusing. Its flashbacks have flashbacks. Its characters are shrill and misanthropic. Its hero (a suave Rhys Ifans, resembling Peter O'Toole in his Henry II period of the mid-1960s) is a man of words, not swords, something he reminds the audience multiple times.

Most lethally, the evidence Anonymous offers for de Vere as the real Shakespeare is as flimsy as Oliver Stone's implication in JFK that Lyndon Johnson conspired in a coup d'etat to unseat President John F. Kennedy.

Political comparisons are apt, as the basis of Anonymous, written by John Orloff, is that de Vere aimed to use his dramas to rouse the rabble and raise his illegitimate son to be Queen Elizabeth's successor. Like many Shakespeare plays, the pretext of Anonymous is royal succession. Who shall succeed Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave)? Will it be James of Scotland, son of Elizabeth's cousin and political rival Mary, Queen of Scots, or the Earl of Southampton, Oxford's illegitimate son?

In place of the explosions and special effects of a typical Emmerich movie, Anonymous provides rant and cant. He presents Queen Elizabeth (Redgrave in the present day and Joely Richardson, her real-life daughter, in flashbacks) as a vain flibbertigibbet easily manipulated by her nefarious adviser, William Cecil (David Thewlis, who all but twirls his mustache when he steers the queen into believing his ideas are her own).

Well, you argue, wasn't Shakespeare in Love a speculative yarn about how Romeo and Juliet came to be written? And if so, why not extend similar goodwill toward Anonymous? Indeed, Shakespeare in Love is a spirited work of fan fiction. Anonymous, however, is a dispiriting dropping of a boo-bird. It treats Shakespeare's plays not as works of the heart but as gambits on the political chessboard.

It does provide an accidental moment of humor: When Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is cheered by the rabble at a curtain call of Henry III, he is pulled off stage and through the audience on the shoulders of groundlings. Who knew that the mosh-pit welcome was an Elizabethan custom?

Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com.


Directed by Roland Emmerich. With Joely Richardson, Jamie Campbell Bower, Rhys Ifans, Derek Jacobi, Rafe Spall, Xavier Samuel, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Tom Wlaschiha, Edward Hogg. Distributed by Sony Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for some violence and sexual content).