Not to be confused with the masked persona shape shifters over at Occupy Wall Street right now, the identity theft whodunit costume drama – or rather who didn’t do it – Anonymous works its alternately playful and tragic period alchemy, as to the real versus bogus William Shakespeare back then. German director Roland Emmerich, more used to smashing cities in disaster thrillers like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, gets into more than a bit of icon smashing with Anonymous. As he speculates on screen as to the legitimacy of just who the author of Shakespeare’s works may or may not have been.
With a page turner of a plot for all those conspiracy sleuths in the audience – and perhaps simply ludicrous for everyone else – Emmerich proposes a scandalous hypothesis that the Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower/Rhys Ifans) throughout his life penned all those plays and sonnets worshipfully attributed to the Shakespeare through the centuries. And that the Earl, for reasons that are never quite fully explained – except that such a lowly pursuit might be beneath the dignity of nobility forced to keep up appearances as royal slackers – may have been in urgent need of a ghost writer.
And stepping up to the plate, though never actually requested to do so, is a boorish, drunken buffoon. Namely, actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Who in his day, much to the Earl’s dismay, could have been considered the Renaissance equivalent of an undercover lip-syncher. Which would be a far easier scam to pull off at the time, in an age long preceding the truth telling powers of the Internet.
A great deal longer than it needs to be, and with an overload of attention deficit disordered distracting plot thread detours, Anonymous nevertheless manages to sustain interest with its darkly crafted, mysterious multiple intrigues. That is, whenever the movie manages to stay sufficiently focused. And among a myriad of sinister themes counting homicidal swordplay, beheadings, Renaissance boy toys, infidelity, seduction, love triangles, incest, creative obsessions, treachery, closet royal offspring, and equal opportunity palace lust. In this case, predominantly centered around a scandalously horny when not simply bratty fangirl lover of both the arts and retro male hunks, Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson/Vanessa Redgrave).
Devolving into a tale alternately worthy of a Shakespearean play in its own right, when not possibly more suited for the National Enquirer, Anonymous is visually and dramatically striking to behold. But does the film move any closer to resolving the controversy surrounding the true identity of William Shakespeare? For all appearances and the best efforts of an irreverent Emmerich, a skeptical jury still seems to be out on this one.