In the bigger picture, the “Shakespeare authorship question” has been bandied about by historians of varying repute since the 1800s, but Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is very much a movie of the American present. It’s impossible not to think of birth certificates and conspiracy theories while watching Emmerich’s bloated, ponderous, badly acted, ludicrously assembled melodrama, and to see in its fevered reimaginings all the heated invention that has dominated the public sphere in recent years. Modern pop culture has become an epistemic minefield, as if not witnessing an act firsthand is reason enough to call its existence into question, and it’s this air of “Well, I don’t know” that pervades every frame of the film. The narrative revolves around a staggeringly complicated scheme to defraud the British public about the true identity of William Shakespeare, positing that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the real author, and that through Shakespeare he used plays as patriotic calls to arms meant to inspire a return to nationalistic greatness and incite a movement designed to overthrow a scheming family attempting to hijack the throne. Like all good conspiracy theories, Emmerich’s tale takes its lack of proof as proof, but Emmerich doesn’t even bother to have fun with his version of history. The film is dour and dim, and it spends too much time sputtering and preaching to actually create characters or a world worth two hours’ investment.
It’s not like Emmerich’s the first person ever to make a piece of historical fiction that deviates wildly from record. He’s not even the first to do so where Shakespeare is concerned. Shakespeare in Love, for instance, featured a playwright whose ideas were improved by those around him, and whose works were cast in a new light through a story about love and loss. But that film was also a comic drama that handled its inventions with a wink, treating history and fiction as pop artifacts the way National Treasure deals with colonial America. It wasn’t supposed to be real, or even “real.” Anonymous, though, is deadly serious in its set-up and execution, which turns it from a flight of fancy into a kind of fan-fiction version of literary history. Watching it, you get the sense that Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff actually believe this stuff, or at least think it deserves enough credence to form the backbone of a film.
Most distressingly, though, they’ve made a bad film, one whose failures are wholly independent of the fact that the story is a disastrous work of speculative fiction. The lazily sketched characters take about an hour to gel into thin stereotypes, and Emmerich shows no interest in introducing them coherently or giving them any semblance of motivation or action, so I’ll save you the trouble and blast through these: The Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is worried that William Cecil (David Thewlis), an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), is plotting to seize the throne in a deal with King James of Scotland (James Clyde). Oxford was quite the poet in his younger days, first gaining the attention of the Queen four decades earlier, when he wrote and performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for her. (Oxford is played as a boy by Luke Taylor and a young man by Jamie Campbell Bower, while the younger Elizabeth is played by Redgrave’s real-life daughter, Joely Richardson.) The film jumps at random between these two timelines, with the youthful Oxford wooing the Queen even as he weds Cecil’s daughter, while the elder Oxford conspires to keep Cecil from rigging the crown through his son, Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg). Realizing his potential to win the populace to his cause through stirring drama — Emmerich’s version of Oxford being a kind of Elizabethan Aaron Sorkin — Oxford contracts local playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to put his name to Oxford’s words, but when Jonson can’t be bought, actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steps in. I have not yet begun to detail the sub-sub-plots involving the Earls of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and Essex (Sam Reid), who are just more pawns in the game.
That was a fairly dense (and, if I’m being honest, boring) 220ish words about the basics of the plot, but Emmerich treats the story with a total lack of of attention to nuance and pacing, so it feels fair to give a synopsis the same treatment. Emmerich and Orloff seem to think that palace intrigue is something that just happens naturally when men and women in power get near each other, which means the film is heavy on scenes of angry exposition and light on anything resembling emotional resonance. It’s obvious Oxford thinks the people of London are dumb enough to be won over with simplistic metaphorical representations of their own problems, but Emmerich seems to hold his own audience in the same esteem. Subtext is text at every moment. We have no idea why Jonson does what he does; he just does it. Similarly, Shakespeare — played as an odious cad by Spall — isn’t even rounded enough to be a proper foil for Oxford. He’s just a horny cartoon eager to collect Oxford’s money so he can pay someone to design him a coat of arms and have someone else get their hands on city records for Stratford-upon-Avon. In one moment, Emmerich acts as if Oxford played Shakespeare for a fool; in another, he portrays Shakespeare as an operative planning a long con whose mark is, apparently, humanity itself. Did Shakespeare (this version of him, anyway) harbor some resentment toward his social betters? Did he feel cheated? Did he long for the spotlight? He’s already an actor, and pretty happy about it; what drove him to want more? Why did he transform from generic lout to extortionist? Emmerich is interested in none of these questions, because their answers require thought, effort, and an ability to trust the audience to get engaged with the story.
The only performer who manages to come out of this thing relatively unharmed is Ifans, who so eagerly throws himself into the role of the gloomy martyr that you wind up, if not rooting for him, at least not wishing him the ill that springs to mind when other characters appear. Oxford is saddled with some awful dialogue (though it’s the younger Bower who is forced to exclaim, “My poems are my soul!”), but Ifans skates by on delivery and attitude. The rest of the cast, left with a clunky script and aimless direction, opts for full-on shouting and scenery-chewing, anchored by Thewlis’ thankless job as a reactionary Puritan who thinks plays are Satan’s doing and who therefore dedicates his life to screwing over Oxford. The builds to a series of twists and revelations that feel cheaper than a telenovela. The cast deserved so much better than this.
Emmerich’s never been a particularly gifted filmmaker, nor one interested in the finer points of human emotion. Yet there was something forgivable about the gleaming idiocy of Independence Day, Stargate, and even The Day After Tomorrow. Emmerich came across in those films as a boy playing in his sandbox, telling bad but harmless stories to himself with no hint of the adult world that loomed around him. Anonymous is a different breed of stupid, though, more in line with the tonally mismanaged and historically ludicrous The Patriot. Then, as now, Emmerich seemed convinced that the only way to tell historical fiction was to rewrite history. The director tries to distance himself from the material a little via a framing device that uses Derek Jacobi in a chorus role at the beginning and end, addressing a crowded theater about the supposed holes in Shakespeare’s biography as the characters we’re about to watch take their places backstage. The narrator isn’t saying the events of the film really happened; he’s just asking questions. Soon enough, though, the stage gives way to real earth, and Emmerich’s clumsy tale takes wing. Even if we’re not meant to believe it, but we surely do suffer for watching it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.