Ahhh...the old "Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare" conspiracy theory, the one that contends that William Shakespeare was an illiterate buffoon with barely enough brains to act, and lacking the requisite worldliness to run for dogcatcher. Right now, somewhere in America there is no doubt at least one grad students arguing that it was in fact Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who actually wrote the plays we credit to The Bard. This continues despite the fact that "among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts." Nonetheless, it's certainly entertaining fodder for film. But good fodder doesn’t always make for good films.
Screenwriter John Orloff cleverly takes the plots of several of "Shakespeare's plays" to reverse engineer the storyline for "Anonymous," which when played forward make it appear as though de Vere's life experiences were the source for "Richard III" and the like. And all this is tied into Queen Elizabeth's struggle to choose a successor, a decision she confronts with the council of Robert Cecil, who helped raise de Vere after he was orphaned. Unfortunately, the whole story gets a lot twistier, as the plot Orloff concocts is even more absurd, convoluted and unlikely than Shakespeare at his most ridiculous. This would be fine if Orloff shared Shakespeare's gift for dialogue, but not even Mrs. Orloff's believes he does.
More absurd still is the implication that de Vere began writing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" when he was about 12 himself, and that his writing became a dark secret he kept hidden from disapproving Protestant eyes. More incredibly still, as Orloff tells it, de Vere kept a stack of unpublished and unproduced plays laying around his office and started leaking them anonymously as it suited his political gamesmanship. This is all maybe a bit sexier than the Shakespeare story we've been fed all our lives, but it's no more probable.
And this being a film directed by Roland Emmerich, you can be sure there's going to be explosions, but there aren't nearly enough. A look at Emmerich's filmography—"2012," "The Day After Tomorrow," "Godzilla"—makes it plain that palace intrigue and political machinations are not his strong suit, devices on which "Anonymous" rightly relies upon.
The cast is filled with impressive actors— Rhys Ifans as de Vere, David Thewlis as William Cecil, Joely Richardson and Vanessa Richardson in a clever bit of casting as Queen Elizabeth young and old. Unfortunately, Mark Rylance, probably the greatest Shakespearean stage actor of his generation, plays Condell, one of the players. Watching Rylance tease every bit of nuance, comedy and power from "Richard III" or "Henry V" is so engrossing that cutting away back to the action of the film feels like a huge letdown every time.
For a film built on such a bold premise—that Shakespeare is the greatest literary fraud in the history of the written word--"Anonymous" is a dispiritingly limp affair.