A tale told by an idiot
Let us, just for the moment, set aside the gross intellectual dishonesty underpinning every single story beat of Roland Emmerich's Elizabethan political thriller Anonymous - a herculean task, I will admit. But simply because Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff and a whole bunch of classically-trained British actors who, in a happier world, would all know better, have built an entire 130-minute motion picture around the crackpot and classist idea that the 37 plays traditionally credited to William Shakespeare were in fact written by Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, does not mean that the film is necessarily bad. It's tempting to point to the example of JFK, with its insistently ridiculous conspiracy narrative about how President Kennedy was assassinated by, in Richard L. Berke's irresistible phrasing, "a cabal of gay anti-communists", as being a film that is offensively bad history that manages to succeed as one of the absolute best paranoia thrillers in cinema history. JFK, however, had the erratic visionary Oliver Stone at his most stylistically inventive; Anonymous has the fuckwit who directed the American Godzilla, and whose last attempt at a history lesson attempted to convince us that there was a thriving, pyramid-building Egyptian culture in 10,000 BC. Poor Bill the glover's son never had a chance.
And oh, yes, they do bring up the glover's son thing, with Derek Jacobi in a modern-day prologue sniffily assuring us that a middle-class man with but a grammar-school education obviously could not have access to the knowledge to write plays about Roman emperors, and if you have not previously been familiar with the Oxfordian theory, I have just shared with you its ideological underpinnings. But I said, "let's set that aside!" and here I am, not setting it aside at all. Anyway, here's what you get when you set it aside: De Vere (Rhys Ifans, in enough makeup to look like a drag king version of himself - not a terribly convincing one, either) has been writing since God knows when, but his foster-father/father-in-law William Cecil (David Thewlis), chief adviser to Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave in the late 1590s, and Joely Richardson - her daughter - in the flashbacks to the 1560s) is a Puritan, and it is anyway not alright for a man such as the 17th Earl of Oxford to publish something so trashy as a play under his own name. Ah, but De Vere, who was one of Elizabeth's many, many paramours when he was a young man (Jamie Campbell Bower), suspects that Cecil's machinations go deeper than a religious hatred of actors - that, in fact, he is secretly plotting to put the nefarious gay midget King James VI of Scotland (James Clyde) on the English throne after Elizabeth's death.* For reasons that, surprisingly, make sense while you're watching, De Vere combats Cecil and his hunchbacked son Robert (Edward Hogg) by publishing his juvenile plays under the name of hack author Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), though Jonson's pride leads him to throw the task upon the drunk, dissolute, altogether awful human being that is actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). This results in the finest body work in the English language being preserved for all history, but Emmerich and Friends give absolutely zero shits about the quality of the plays in question, regardless of who wrote them. Which, honestly, I find sort of refreshing.
If I were to take a look at all that, and try to judge Anonymous as a nail-biting thriller of court intrigue, lies, and rebellion, I would be forced to admit that, yes, Lisy Christl's costume designs are really pretty goddamn good. I'm drawing a blank on anything else. The film's biggest problem is that it utterly fails to find a tone it's willing to stick with for more than a scene or two: parts of it feel like they desperately want to be campy, but the only genuinely camp scene is when one of the plot's many villains finally explains the whole evil plot in plummy, self-satisfied tones MINI SPOILER ALERT including when he pronounces the word "incest" with four syllables and at least three T's. And then, if it isn't campy, at least it should be playful, but Emmerich (for whom this was a long-gestating passion project), is much too serious about every last little thing, and he and cinematographer Anna Foerster shoot everything in a uniform shade of squelchy black that serves to make even the wackiest turns totally mirthless - and by God, but there are wacky turns, and if you can't imagine somebody directing wackiness with dead sobriety, you clearly are no Emmerich fancier. I especially enjoyed that Shakespeare, as a comic rascal, was plainly modeled after Russell Brand, though whether Brand was a approached and wisely refused, or if they didn't even bother, I cannot say.
The production design could be good, if only it did not announce its CGI-ness quite so loudly; the atmosphere is rife with the kind of over-baked foreboding where lightning strikes that punctuate great speeches come across every fifth scene or so. The acting is uniformly unhinged, with Redgrave's sex-fiend Queen Bess being a highlight (Richardson's performance isn't quite as giddy, though she does get the oral sex scene that gives the whole movie that extra bit of frisson). The whole thing is at once obviously costly and so fucking ludicrous in execution - leaving aside content completely, I reiterate - that it can't help but be a huge bad-movie delight. The single drawback is that, like Emmerich's desperately straitlaced 2012, it's simply too long to maintain whatever crazily stupid energy drives it: a 90 minute Anonymous could have been nothing but unalloyed kitschy gold, but the heavily-padded running time does tend to make everything altogether plodding.
But now, let us return to the film as a history lesson. There are a lot of reasons the Oxford hypothesis doesn't hold up, and I don't see why I need to go into them all here, but really, Anonymous isn't trying to prove Oxford wrote the plays, so much as it takes that to be given, and proceeds to spin out its story from that postulate. What fascinates me much more than this one grand "fuck you" to common intelligence is the almost uncountable litany of ways that it fucks up everything else: from getting the order of plays' premiere dates entirely wrong (e.g. Macbeth, a late tragedy, showing up before Richard III, an early history; Henry V, the writer's last solo work of English history, as his first produced play - and boy oh boy, but the orgy of groundling enthusiasm that greets the St. Crispin's Day speech is proof enough that Emmerich is an insane genius), getting the very content of the plays wrong; performing a hatchet job on Ben Jonson's talents as a writer comparable to the way that Amadeus would have you believe that the very good composer Antonio Salieri was an incompetent buffoon; keeping Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) alive a full five years too long, and completely revising the already very movie-friendly circumstances of his death just to make that FUCKING GLOVER'S SON even more of an asshole.
Of course, I have no wish to blame a movie whose single goal is to educate us about the greatest literary cover-up in history while also being a rollicking thriller of cloak-and-dagger machinations for getting almost every possible detail about that cover-up wrong. Hey, Elizabeth did die in 1603! You nailed that one, Roland! Which almost excuses the scene indicating that Julius Caesar ends with the title character's death, which actually takes place in Act III, scene 1 of a five-act play. But that's probably me being nitpicky.