Click on the audio player below to listen to Slate's Spoiler Special podcast on Roland Emmerich's Anonymous after you've seen the movie.
Roland Emmerich’s last film, 2012, embarked from the premise that the world as we know it will come to a cataclysmic end sometime next year, in accordance with the predictions of the ancient Mayan calendar, and that our planet’s only hope for survival lies with John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a high-tech Noah’s ark stocked with airlifted giraffes. That scenario is more plausible than the theory floated by Emmerich’s new film, Anonymous (Columbia Pictures), a febrile alternative history of the genesis of the 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and assorted narrative poems that most of us, fools that we are, attribute to a glove-maker’s son from Stratford named William Shakespeare.
The truth is, I’ve been jazzed about the arrival of Anonymous for over a year, ever since attending a wonderfully bizarre publicity junket in Berlin, where the film was being shot at the historic Babelsberg studios. I loved 2012’s campy self-assurance, the cheerful dumbness of its appetite for destruction. The idea of Emmerich, one of Hollywood’s looniest big-budget auteurs, taking on a project this certifiably bananas was somehow thrilling.
But what’s disappointing about Anonymous is that it isn’t dumb enough. Rather than plunging merrily ahead with its fanciful counternarrative, the movie keeps stopping to actually, seriously make its case—to posit and explain and persuade. A conspiracy-theory movie about Shakespeare might work if it were playful and clever, a trickster fable on the order of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can. Instead, Emmerich’s film plods solemnly back and forth between two poorly integrated plotlines, one involving Elizabethan court intrigue, the other backstage chicanery. Emmerich’s big mistake was to approach the material as tragedy rather than comedy. Screenwriter John Orloff tells the story of the man who would be Shakespeare as a third-rate ripoff of Hamlet, when it could have been a second-rate ripoff of Twelfth Night.
From its opening frames Anonymous feels portentous and didactic. In a questionably necessary scaffolding story, the Shakespearean stage actor Derek Jacobi appears on a modern-day stage for some scene-setting defamation of the Bard’s name: “What would you think if I told you that Shakespeare never wrote a single word?” Flashback to a heavily CGI-augmented version of 16th-century London, where all manner of aristocratic trickery is afoot.
The hunchbacked high courtier Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg) has arrested playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) for sedition. Cecil suspects that Jonson has a secret he’s not telling, and he’s right—Jonson knows that the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans), is secretly the author of the popular plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Because his works critique those in high places—and because, apparently, of the shame conferred by inky fingers—De Vere has chosen to hide behind a pseudonym. He tries to persuade Jonson to be his beard, but in a moment of spontaneous opportunism, Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a barely literate dolt in the company that performs the plays attributed to “Anonymous,” seizes a copy of a play after a performance and passes it off as his own.
In a dreary subplot—really more of a co-plot, since it takes up almost half the movie—two young noblemen, the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), lead an attempted rebellion against Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson as a young woman; her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as an older one). There are reasons for this rebellion that involve succession disputes and the Stuart dynasty in Scotland, but honestly, life’s too short to get into them here. All you need to know is that Elizabeth’s reputation as the Virgin Queen is, shall we say, unearned—for years, the court has been shipping off the bastard children born of her affairs to be raised by families unaware of their royal provenance.
The movie’s middle section is a blur of doublets and double-crosses, so overstuffed with character and incident that it soon becomes impossible to keep up with the multiple time frames. (We see De Vere played at three separate ages by different actors.) The playwright Christopher Marlowe is mysteriously murdered. The queen takes a lover. Traitors are beheaded, legacies questioned, and scandalous truths revealed. Once in a while we get to see a fragment of a Shakespeare play—Bottom’s song from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V—that reminds us why we cared about this story in the first place. (Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Mark Rylance, an authorship skeptic in real life, plays actor Richard Burbage, and, in the brief glimpses we get of him on stage, he’s sensational.) Vanessa Redgrave, working with way sub-Shakespearean material, does invent some brilliant bits of business for Queen Bess—in one scene, alone with her closest adviser, she plonks herself unceremoniously down on the base of the throne, reminding us that even sixteenth-century monarchs must have had their moments of unfiltered intimacy.
An autopsy for Anonymous would have to list multiple causes of death, with its dopey high-concept premise not even first among them. Most fundamentally, this movie doesn’t seem to know who its protagonist is. De Vere is a petulant fop who disappears for long portions of the narrative, and Shakespeare is a mouth-breathing doofus who barely appears at all. (Spall’s performance as the status-hungry moron from Stratford is appealingly broad—when he surfs an adoring crowd after a performance of Henry V you see the lighthearted satire this could have been.) Late in the movie there’s a suggestion of a lifelong Amadeus-style rivalry between De Vere and Ben Jonson, but the subplot is never developed enough to engage us in their relationship. By the time De Vere is on his deathbed agonizing over his legacy, we’re more than ready to say “Goodnight, sweet prince.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the ludicrously refutable "debate” around Shakespeare authorship, you may have trouble following the plot of this muddled movie at all. But don’t take that as a reason to read the doubters and then see Anonymous. Take it as an excuse to skip them both and read As You Like It.