To rewrite the Bard, a skunk by any other name would smell as foul. And “Anonymous,” a strange combination of garbled history and woozy period political melodrama that tries unsuccessfully to treat Shakespeare in the way that “Amadeus” did Mozart (though without even bothering to recognize his genius), gives off a pretty bad odor.
It would be a tedious and melancholy business to catalogue the far-fetched speculations and historical errors in Joe Orloff’s screenplay, which is predicated on the premise—beloved of a small but fervent bunch of conspiracy theorists—that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were actually penned by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Others will undoubtedly take on this task, so we can simply defer to them. Suffice it to say that in this version de Vere has a very close relationship with Queen Elizabeth I (two relationships, in fact—the second being one of the movie’s final revelations) and uses the stage to make a political statement involving his erstwhile guardian William Cecil and his son Robert, who are maneuvering to secure the succession to the English throne of James Stuart, king of Scotland, against the claims of the young Earl of Essex, presumed to be one of the queen’s bastard offspring. This scenario is utterly tendentious, to use the most charitable adjective, involving as it does a rash of chronological reshuffling, character assassination, implausibility and downright falsehood.
All that matters, of course, if the film is taken by unsuspecting viewers as history—a real danger, if previous movies like Oliver Stone’s “JFK” are any indication of the impact such activist popular cinema can have in an age of widespread historical illiteracy and an inclination to accept the most ridiculous allegations as true. But setting that aside, the question becomes whether “Anonymous,” defensible or not as historical argument, is enjoyable as a goofy lark. And that answer is that though it’s very handsomely mounted, it isn’t.
One problem is that it doesn’t merely turn Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) into a buffoon, and an illiterate one at that. It also characterizes him as a money-hungry scoundrel, willing to resort to blackmail and even murder to feather his nest while accepting public acclamation he doesn’t deserve. In short, he’s a loser who’s not even a remotely likable, and as Spall plays him (very broadly indeed), he’s just a mean-spirited clown one has little interest in.
By contrast, in the hands of Rhys Ifans, de Vere is portrayed as a high-minded, emotionally controlled man whose genius is palpable (it’s ludicrously posited that he not only wrote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” while in his teens but performed it for the young Elizabeth at court) and whose need to write is irresistible, but is constrained by the demands of his station from presenting them under his own name. So he enlists playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto, handsome but bland) to have them performed as his work, though by accident they come to be attributed to hack actor Shakespeare instead.
This “artistic” side of “Anonymous” has some amusing moments, despite Spall’s blustering performance, though even here the characterization of some of the other figures—most notably Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle)—is as heavy-handed as its take on Shakespeare himself. The picture really stumbles, however, when it moves into the corridors of political power. One can challenge the depiction of the aged Elizabeth as a querulous, emotionally distraught old woman controlled by her advisors, but Vanessa Redgrave gives her such touching fragility that you’re willing to go along, particularly since she matches up well with Joely Richardson as the young queen. And though the characterization of William Cecil as a Puritan hard-liner is off-base, David Thewlis plays him with becoming gravity (and the subplot about his enriching himself with the inheritance of young Oxford, played by Jamie Campbell Bower, is credible enough).
But when one gets to the machinations of William and his son Robert (Edward Hogg) to secure the succession for James Stuart, supposedly against Elizabeth’s will, the narrative becomes so chaotic and the revelations so over-the-top that they bend both historical credibility and dramatic persuasiveness past the breaking point. It certainly doesn’t help that Hogg plays Robert Cecil like a villain from a creaky Victorian melodrama or a bad actor doing Richard III (to whom, in a thoroughly unhistorical, chronologically impossible bit at the end, he’s compared). Or that Essex (Sebastian Reid), presented absurdly as a plausible alternative to James, and his ardent supporter Southampton (Xavier Samuel) are depicted as empty-headed young zealots.
An impressive physical production has been lavished on this malarkey. Sebastian Krawinkel’s production design, the art direction supervised by Stephan Gessler, Simon Boucherie’s set decoration and Lisy Christi’s costumes are extravagant, while the effects team has created a colorful, impressive simulacrum of early modern London. And Anna J. Foerster’s widescreen cinematography presents it all in lush tones.
But not even a book-ending appearance by Derek Jacobi to introduce and sum up its argument can make “Anonymous” anything but what it is—a lavish but historically unconvincing and dramatically muddled presentation of a theory about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays it would be overly kind to call a discredited fringe view.