Everything viewers need to know about Anonymous—and about the whole stupid world of anti-Stratfordians, the conspiracy theorists who believe William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays and poems that bear his name—can be gleaned by the pronunciation of a single word in the film’s first scene. Derek Jacobi frames the film as a narrator speaking before a live audience and questioning whether the son of a glovemaker could truly have written Shakespeare’s work, sneering his way through “glovemaker” as if the word were synonymous with garbage. Anti-Stratfordianism is based on the highly questionable, and prejudiced, notion that a man of Shakespeare’s genius couldn’t possibly have come from common stock.
So who might have written Shakespeare then? The most popular theory, and the one championed by director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) and writer John Orloff here, posits Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl Of Oxford, as the most likely candidate. Rhys Ifans plays him here as a humorless snoot (the perfect hero for the anti-Stratfordian crowd, in other words). Falling in and out of favor with the court, De Vere writes his plays in secret, then, sensing that he can use them to advance a political agenda, employs Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to bring them to the stage where a drunken actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) takes the credit.
Playing Shakespeare as a shameless, egotistical ham, Spall’s performance is both the most insulting and the most entertaining element of Anonymous, livening up an otherwise dull slog through Elizabethan palace intrigue that’s seldom all that intriguing. Switching from the dubious science of his disaster films to dubious history, Emmerich never really explains who his players are or what drives them, stringing together declamatory scenes of angry men talking to angrier men that will probably confuse—and offend—even those who brushed up on their history before watching the movie. Vanessa Redgrave overacts as the aged Elizabeth (played in younger years by Joely Richardson, Redgrave’s daughter), Emmerich fills his CGI London with bitchy caricatures of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and others, and it all works toward some late-film twists that are even more ridiculous than the anti-Shakespeare theory at the film’s core (which is saying something). It’s as dull as it is brainless, the work of creators who’ve spent far more time concocting silly stories about Shakespeare than learning from him.