Back in 1976, when Saturday Night Live was still irreverent, Garrett Morris would do a bit called "News for the Hard of Hearing," shouting through cupped hands. That's a bit what it's like watching Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, a loud and ludicrous historical rewrite about the supposed hidden authorship of Shakespeare's plays.
Yes, from the man who brought you Godzilla and 2012, the story of Shakespeare. If Shakespeare were a lowlife opportunist and murderer, that is. According to Anonymous—which promulgates an "anti-Stratfordian" viewpoint—the true author of Shakespeare's plays was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. As the theory goes, the aristocrat found a front so as not to compromise his position with the political intimations and liberality of his plays (because, after all, a poor guy who never went to college couldn't possibly have written them...sorry, the 99%).
Besides being unable to agree upon de Vere (other suspects include Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon), the anti-Stratfordians represent a small if vocal minority within the world of literary study. And screenwriter John Orloff does them no favors with his wildly overreaching historical fiction, dotted with salacious conjecture (two words: accidental incest) and inaccuracies that range from trivial to head-scratchingly bald (like taking a famous event from the Shakespearean timeline, shifting it by a full decade, and providing a new reason for its occurrence).
Okay, but audiences will excuse anything if a story works on its own dramatic terms. Unfortunately, Anonymous drops the ball in this respect, as well: a herky-jerky pace and confusing editing hobble narrative clarity, and it doesn't help that Emmerich prefers shooting every scene as if took place in an aquarium with its light turned off. As played by Rhys Ifans, de Vere comes off as a seriously repressed cold fish: even allowing the film's conceit that circumstances force de Vere to hold back his passions, we're never convinced this guy ever took delight in his own freewheeling humor and poetic soul (to be fair: the elder de Vere contrasts to his lustier youthful self, played by Jamie Campbell Bower).
Orloff nominally frames the story with a provocative modern-day stage play, whose narrator is played by Shakespearean actor (and anti-Stratfordian) Sir Derek Jacobi. The rest ping-pongs around de Vere's life, purporting—among other things—that de Vere authored and starred in A Midsummer Night's Dream at age nine. De Vere conspires with Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), who allows Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to claim the glory. Meanwhile, the Queen's devious counselors (primarily David Thewlis' William Cecil) angle to control succession, a plot complicated by de Vere and—whaddya know?—his plays, which Orloff reductively treats as propaganda.
Even devoted Shakespeareans may take naughty pleasure in seeing anti-Stratfordian theories leap to life, and the film does have numerous strengths: passages of recreated Shakespeare plays (wittily cast with former Shakespeare's Globe artistic director Mark Rylance), a revivified Elizabethan London courtesy of nifty CGI, and Vanessa Redgrave's beautifully subtle work as Queen Elizabeth I. Still, the film's default is bad acting, with supposedly real human beings talking as if they're, well, terrible Shakesperean actors (worst in show: Trystan Gravelle as Marlowe). Cumulatively, Anonymous is some kind of hot mess, but then again, it's not every day you can see a sacred cow slaughtered before your eyes.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]