The Convoluted Nonsense of 'Anonymous'

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Roland Emmerich tries, and fails, to brush up his Shakespeare

anonymous movie still corr 615.jpg

Columbia Pictures

Anonymous, the new film by action-apocalypse auteur Roland Emmerich, opens with an aerial shot of Times Square. What CGI calamity could he have in store? Another radioactive iguana running amuck? A super-blizzard? A magmic meltdown? No, this time out Emmerich has set his talents toward loftier purposes. I will not be the first to say: alas.

'Anonymous' trudges forward with dull, methodical urgency.

Down at street level, a man scrambles into the back door of a Broadway theater. He takes his place onstage in the nick of time, still wearing his overcoat and muffler. The curtain rises, and lo and behold: Derek Jacobi, silver-haired incarnation of the dramatic arts, meticulously pedigreed Shakespearean. He speaks a brief prologue about the Bard, upon whom he casts first praise and then suspicion. Could such noble words truly have been written by a man with only a grammar-school education? How can it be that not a single manuscript has ever been found written in Shakespeare's own hand? "Let me offer you a different story," Jacobi continues, "a darker story."

Sadly, "darker" in this instance seems essentially a synonym for "dimmer." Jacobi was doubtless chosen to deliver this introduction because he is a prominent enthusiast of the "Oxfordian" school of Shakespeare revisionism, the theories of which supply the central plot of the film. In any case, we don't see Jacobi again until the movie's closing moments, when his oddly untethered play-within-a-movie narrative frame (which is really a movie-within-a-play) abruptly reappears to underline the Oxfordian argument for anyone who might have nodded off during the intervening two hours.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that Shakespeare's plays and sonnets were in fact written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and that Shakespeare himself was an illiterate actor who was credited with the works to protect de Vere's lordly reputation. Though this is the most widespread alternative theory of Shakespearian authorship nowadays, it's not a terribly persuasive one, as it depends on a variety of inferences and assumptions rather than any genuine forensic evidence. But Emmerich, working from a script by John Orloff, does the Oxfordian case no favors: In his telling, de Vere is a kind of 16th-century superhero: poet and swordfighter, nobleman and populist, lover (and more) of Queen Elizabeth, father of royal heirs, and an heir himself. As such, he is also a central figure in the machinations over who will succeed the queen, and the target of various counterplots and assassination attempts. (I suppose we should be grateful that the film didn't have the time or ingenuity to also credit him with the works and deeds of Cervantes, Caravaggio, and Sir Francis Drake.) Take the political intrigue of Elizabeth, add the backstage drama of Shakespeare in Love, and divide by the adherence to fact and logic that propelled 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, and you'll have a reasonable sense of what to expect from Anonymous.

In the right hands, this kind of broad historical reimagining can be rather fun, whether it involves H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time or Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, and Dr. Jekyll uniting to form a Victorian Justice League. But fun is an ingredient sorely missing from Emmerich's film. Rather than strive for the nimble, literate whimsy of Shakespeare in Love, Anonymous trudges forward with dull, methodical urgency.

The film contains a great deal of convoluted and unnecessary chronological shuffling, of "40 years earlier"s tumbling on the heels of "5 years earlier"s. But as best I could follow, the idea is that de Vere first writes and performs a version of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the late 1550s or early 1560s, when he is a prepubescent boy. A then-twentysomething Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) is delighted by the play, and when he grows a bit older—perhaps his own late teens or early twenties—she takes de Vere (Jamie Campbell Bower) as a lover. Elizabeth becomes pregnant and gives birth to a noble child whose identity is long concealed from (but ultimately revealed to) both parents by the queen's scheming adviser William Cecil (David Thewlis), and his equally scheming and villainously hunchbacked son, Robert (Edward Hogg).

Banished from court and forced into a loveless marriage, de Vere spends a couple of decades secretly writing plays—Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet—that sit untouched on his shelves until the 16th century is about to flip to the 17th. In hopes of influencing the royal succession, de Vere (now played by Rhys Ifans) decides to have these works performed in public, and approaches playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to put his name to them. But Jonson hesitates long enough that a boorish, blackmailing, and ultimately murderous actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) decides to take credit himself. Complications and conspiracies, both literary and geopolitical, ensue.

For all its silliness and self-regard, Anonymous is ably executed, and those who don't fret over its wildly ahistoric details may enjoy Anna Foerster's brooding cinematography and a handful of nice performances. Ifans, for his part, exhibits a certain gloomy charisma in the central role of de Vere. (How very far he's come from the "masturbating Welshman" in a T-shirt that declares "You're the Most Beautiful Woman in the World; Fancy a Fuck?") Richardson is customarily appealing as the young Elizabeth, and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, is better still as the aging, often bewildered version—though it's a pity that neither actress was given nearly as much to work with as Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren in their recent tours as the Virgin Queen.

But despite its solid cast, fine sets, and general air of quality, Anonymous is, in the end, a load of nonsense, a conspiratorial fantasy on a par with faked moon landings and Bill Ayer's authorship of Barack Obama's autobiography. Late in the film, while watching a production of Richard III, one of Ben Jonson's playwright colleagues asks another, "How does it end?" The reply: "Tragically, no doubt."

No doubt.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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