Roland “2012/Godzilla” Emmerich’s “Anonymous” is a generally sober-minded legitimizing of a couple of the Elizabethan Era’s most fervently held conspiracy theories — that Elizabeth I, far from being a Virgin Queen, had a child or children, and that the commoner William Shakespeare could not have written the glorious plays which are attributed to him.
It’s all poppycock, built on this widely discounted theory and that scalding, unsubstantiated rumor. Still Emmerich, with all the resources that a career of digital effects blockbusters can offer, doesn’t embarrass himself. He hasn’t made “Shakespeare in Love.” He doesn’t have the touch. But even lacking the laughs and romance, he has delivered an entertaining eye-roller of alternative history, burnishing a substitute Shakespeare — the nobleman Edward De Vere — and recreating the political and cultural climate that would have forced a writer of rabble-rousing histories and comedies full of snide references to members of the ruling classes to let someone else take the credit.
Rhys Ifans makes a fascinating De Vere, a haunted man who shrugs off accusations that these wonderful plays and poems that suddenly turn up, on stage or in print, sound like what he wrote before he married into a family of “No artists, please” Puritans. He has to hide his hands behind his back as he makes his denials. Ink stains were tougher to get out back then.
Sebastian Armesto is the not-yet-famous playwright Ben Jonson, who might be persuaded/blackmailed/bribed into plucking the many finished plays off De Vere’s crowded shelves and passing them off as his own.
“All art is political, Jonson,” De Vere inveighs. “All artists have something to say. Otherwise, you would be a cobbler.”
De Vere wants to score points against the Puritans, especially his father-in-law (David Thewlis, properly self-righteous and sneaky) and brother-in-law (Edward Hogg). For decades, they have had Queen Elizabeth’s ear. And now that she (Vanessa Redgrave, excellent, with her daughter Joely Richardson playing the younger Elizabeth) is in her dotage, there is wheeling and dealing about the future of the country going on just out of her earshot.
“Since when did words ever win a kingdom?” the dashing Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) wants to know. But De Vere, Earl of Oxford, knows better. Words can persuade, woo, cajole and inflame — “That’s POWER, Essex!”
Shakespeare, here, is an “illiterate” actor somehow able to read and memorize his lines without being able to make a coherent mark on parchment. John Orloff’s script and Rafe Spall’s performance turn The Bard into an arrogant but cunning fop. Somehow, after all, he did wind up with the credit for “To be, or not to be,” right? Not Jonson (blandly written and played) or Christopher Marlowe (ditto, by Trystan Gravelle), two other favorites of the conspiracy crowd.
In between the arrests, betrayals, tortures and flashbacks — De Vere’s life at court included writing and appearing in plays since childhood — we see Shakespeare’s plays rehearsed, performed and acclaimed. Casual Shakespeare buffs will appreciate the ways the acting customs of the day are presented, the ways The Globe theater was financed and what became of it.
And as educated, titled and well-traveled De Vere’s dramas, comedies and histories become the sensation of London, “our Will” steps out to take the bows.
Emmerich frames all this within the premiere of a “play” in modern day New York, where the great Derek Jacobi, the chorus in Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V,” lends legitimacy to these proceedings, debunking “our Shakespeare…the soul of the Age, the wonder of our stage.”
Even a cursory bit of research punches holes in the grassy knoll moments presented here. But “Anonymous” takes its “J.F.K.” shot and is never so wide of the mark to provoke giggles. The paranoid world conjured up by the screenwriter of “A Mighty Heart” and rendered onscreen by a fellow whose specialty has been end-of-the-world spectacle is most convincing, and that world could have produced a conspiracy this deep and this enduring. That makes “Anonymous” as fascinating, in its own way, as the “true” history of these plays, or as much of that as is known.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content
Cast: Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Sebastian Armesto, Joely Richardson
Credits: Directred by Roland Emmerich, written by John Orloff. A Sony Pictures release.
Running time: 2:10