O for a Muse of fire — even if he’s not who we always thought he was. That’s the premise of director Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, which clumsily posits that William Shakespeare — glover’s son, actor, pride of Stratford — was not the author of the plays and poetry for which he’s become famous.
Instead, Emmerich offers up a fashionable conspiracy theory involving political intrigue, thwarted ambition, love and revenge, art and rebellion, incest, an army of illegitimate children (from the Virgin Queen, no less) — and one Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as true creator of Hamlet and his brethren.
Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day) isn’t the only true believer in Oxford’s case, and there have been other theories about other authors who would be Shakespeare. The problem isn’t the theory, which is entertaining if not persuasive (and only makes the slightest bit of sense if you believe all of Shakespeare’s plays are autobiographical). Shakespeare in Love was a fictional bauble, too, and it was delightful. But Anonymous, far from ascending the brightest heaven of invention, is a muddled, often confusing film, unable to mesh its political and theatrical plotlines. Worse, it undermines its own argument by cramming in too many fanciful possibilities.
Still, the cast is impressive, and the story even soapier than The Tudors, if you like that sort of thing. The film stars the excellent Rhys Ifans as Oxford, who has been a writer all his life. He begins to offer up plays for public performance when he sees a chance to undermine a political rival, the queen’s right-hand man, Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), who aims to see James of Scotland on the throne.
Oxford and the Cecils have a past. The earl had a stormy relationship with Cecil’s father, William (David Thewlis), who was his guardian and had vainly tried to keep the young Oxford from writing — and out of the bedchamber of Queen Elizabeth (played by Joely Richardson and later Vanessa Redgrave).
Over time, the older Oxford’s relationship with the Queen has grown frosty, but he still wants to do what’s right for England. He asks playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to claim authorship of the comedies and tragedies he turns out at a startling rate. Jonson refuses, but blowhard actor Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is more than happy to take the credit, the applause and a stiff fee for his silence.
The CGI effects Emmerich uses effectively in his end-of-the-world flicks lack any magic here, but the lively theatrical scenes, in which rapt audiences are alternately roused or moved to tears, are thrilling; they capture the mighty power of this poetry regardless of who wrote it. The amusing Spall provides the film’s humor, making Shakespeare a slob of a fellow, dim, greedy and far more concerned with booze and wenches than art.
But recreating the political entanglements of the Essex rebellion against Elizabeth poses a problem for the filmmakers; there are too many characters and the plot grows too complicated, rendering the narrative far-fetched and hard to follow.
The queen herself lacks any backbone. Writer John Orloff (A Mighty Heart, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole) portrays one of Britain’s most powerful monarchs as a dithery and petulant young woman and an addled old one. Elizabeth held the throne for more than 40 years; under her reign the British defeated the Spanish Armada and ushered in a new era in which drama flourished. Anonymous turns out to be more propaganda than drama — and not terribly convincing propaganda at that.
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Rafe Spall, Joely Richardson.
Director: Roland Emmerich.
Screenwriter: John Orloff.
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Larry J. Franco, Robert Leger.
A Columbia Pictures studios release. Running time: 130 miinutes. Some violence, sexual content. Opens Friday Oct. 28 at area theaters.