Roland Emmerich’s mirthless hatchet job is hoisted with its own petard.
Director Roland Emmerich has built a career out of blowing things up. But if his previous films conjured destruction on a grand scale, his new film has a rather more specific target in mind: the reputation of one William Shakespeare.
Anonymous pivots on the idea that Will was a fraud, and that the body of work attributed to him was in fact written by the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), who intended the plays as propaganda in a struggle for power during the reign of Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave). Oxford entrusts struggling playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) with staging his dramas, but a buffoonish actor named Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), scenting a lucrative opportunity, seizes them for himself.
The 'anti-Stratfordian' claim has a long history in Shakespearean scholarship, and a roster of famous intellectuals, from Twain to Dickens to Freud, have subscribed to it, but this silly film will do the Oxford apologists few favours. Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff have taken the authorship controversy and spun it into a preposterous narrative that has the young Gloriana (Joely Richardson) bearing Oxford’s illegitimate child, whose later claim to the throne is pressed obliquely by the pseudonymous plays.
You could drive a horse and cart through the holes in the plot, but this wouldn’t much matter if the film were remotely entertaining. It isn’t. Anonymous is hamstrung by its own earnestness, displaying none of the lightness of touch that made John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love such a delight. Aside from a few impressive CGI-enhanced wide shots of Elizabethan London, Emmerich’s direction is leaden, and Orloff’s script is riddled with banalities ("I would go mad if I didn’t write down the voices!" cries Oxford, by way of explanation for his art).
There are further problems. While Ifans and Redgrave bring some gravitas to their scenes, the acting is otherwise clumsy: Jamie Campbell Bower, playing the young Oxford, doesn’t convince us that he could write a shopping list, never mind Hamlet, and Spall’s turn as a drunken, lecherous Shakespeare is so awkwardly broad he seems to have wandered in from another film entirely (some bawdy slapstick comedy – Carry On Conspiring, perhaps).
Then again, depicting Shakespeare as an unregenerate oik was probably all part of the plan. The case for the nobleman Oxford stems from the notion that the poor glover’s son from Stratford cannot possibly have possessed the education or life experience to have created the great works; it is an inherently snobbish argument that overlooks the very thing that made Shakespeare the fine writer he was: his imagination. Ironically enough, imagination is a quality this wrong-headed and utterly tedious film sorely lacks.
Sex, lies and parchment...such stuff as dreams are made on?
O, enjoyment, where art thou?
Emmerich’s mirthless hatchet job is hoisted with its own petard.