Anonymous is that rare movie from action director Roland Emmerich in which nothing blows up—except the crackpot theory that Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the canon of plays and sonnets historically attributed to William Shakespeare. This hothouse melodrama of Tudor intrigue, sex, and politics, scripted by John Orloff, is based on the most controversial "Oxfordian" theories.
It's all sheer humbuggery, but still an entertaining spectacle: the costumes are exquisite, the overhead shots Elizabethan London are breathtaking, and it's populated by a bunch of attractive young actors on their way up.
Oxford (Rhys Ifans) has penned his plays in secret, ever since he was fostered into the Puritan household of Queen Elizabeth's counselor, William Cecil (an unrecognizable David Thewlis), where poetry was forbidden. However, the dashing young Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower, in flashback) charmed the lusty, poetry-loving young Queen Bess (Joely Richardson).
But now that the queen is in her dotage (Vanessa Redgrave, playing the formidable Bess as dotty and girlish), Oxford starts leaking his plays to the Globe theater company to influence public opinion (or "the mob," as all the nobles call them) in the matter of the queen's heir. Elizabeth's court is evidently teeming with her bastard children, including the young earls of Essex (Sam Reid) and Southampton (Xavier Samuel), whose doomed rebellion is portrayed as a patriotic attempt to retain the English crown for the English Tudor bloodline.
Refusing to claim authorship of the work because it's simply not done, or something, Oxford tries to get playwright Ben Jonson to front for him. But when the first performance of Henry V sends the crowd into an ecstatic frenzy, Will Shakespeare, a buffoonish comic actor in the company, sneaks in to put his name to the unsigned manuscript—a charade Oxford finds it politically expedient to maintain, bankrupting himself to buy the upstart Will's complicity.
This portrait of Shakespeare as a smarmy, boorish, scheming illiterate is irksome (although Rafe Spall plays him with vivid comic brio); so is the elitist idea that only a nobleman could possibly be capable of such brilliance. It's hard to believe that Oxford (or anyone) could have written A Midsummer Night's Dream at age 12, as is suggested here. And would the canniest monarch of her age farm out such a litter of bastard children among the noblest houses of England to be manipulated later by her enemies?
Meanwhile, the filmmakers cheerfully massacre the facts of English history and the allegorical meaning of the plays themselves, in a vain attempt to fit their idle speculation. I disliked the portrait of Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) as an oily, conniving malcontent (especially since Marlowe was long dead by the time events in this movie take place). Ifan's mature Oxford is anonymous indeed; circumspect and elegant, but lacking in passion or presence. (Sebastian Armesto's courageous Ben Jonson emerges as the hero.)
Still, for all its faults, the film conveys the Elizabethan era in all its messy splendor, and backstage glimpses of the Globe in its heyday and snippets of the plays in performance are often thrilling.
It's too bad such majestic production values are wasted on such a hopeless con job. If you must fool around with Shakespearean history, I much prefer novelist Elizabeth Bear's audacious Stratford Man Duology, in which Will Shakespeare succeeds Kit Marlowe in weaving magical spells into their brilliant verse for the protection of the realm—after Marlowe has been whisked off to eternal life in the land of Faery. It's far more imaginative, and plausible, than the fairy tale of Anonymous.