Leave it to a German to blitzkrieg the Immortal Bard and the Virgin Queen in one sitting.
Roland Emmerich's Anonymous is a generally sober-minded legitimizing of a couple of the Elizabethan era's most fervently held conspiracy theories: Elizabeth I, far from being a Virgin Queen, had a child or children, and commoner William Shakespeare could not have written the glorious plays attributed to him.
It's all poppycock, built on widely discounted theory and scalding, unsubstantiated rumor. Still, Emmerich (2012, Godzilla) doesn't embarrass himself. He hasn't made Shakespeare in Love. He doesn't have the touch. But even lacking the laughs and romance, he has delivered an entertaining eye-roller of alternative history, burnishing a substitute Shakespeare — nobleman Edward De Vere — and re-creating the political and cultural climate that would have forced a writer of rabble-rousing histories and comedies full of snide references to members of the ruling classes to let someone else take the credit.
Rhys Ifans makes a fascinating De Vere, a haunted man who shrugs off accusations that these wonderful plays and poems that suddenly turn up, on stage or in print, sound like what he wrote before he married into a family of "no artists, please" Puritans. He has to hide his hands behind his back as he makes his denials. Ink stains were tougher to get out back then.
Sebastian Armesto is not-yet-famous playwright Ben Jonson, who might be persuaded/blackmailed/bribed into plucking the many finished plays off De Vere's shelves and passing them off as his own.
De Vere wants to score points against the Puritans, especially his father-in-law (David Thewlis, self-righteous and sneaky) and brother-in-law (Edward Hogg). For decades, they have had Queen Elizabeth's ear. And now that she (Vanessa Redgrave, excellent, with daughter Joely Richardson playing the younger Elizabeth) is in her dotage, there is wheeling and dealing about the future of the country just out of her earshot.
"Since when did words ever win a kingdom?" dashing Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) wants to know. De Vere, Earl of Oxford, knows better. Words can persuade, woo, cajole and inflame.
Shakespeare, here, is an "illiterate" actor, somehow able to read and memorize his lines but unable to make a coherent mark on parchment. John Orloff's script and Rafe Spall's performance turn the Bard into an arrogant, cunning fop. Somehow, after all, he did wind up with the credit for "To be, or not to be," right? Not Jonson (blandly written and played) or Christopher Marlowe (ditto, by Trystan Gravelle), two other favorites of the conspiracy crowd.
Among the arrests, betrayals, tortures and flashbacks, we see Shakespeare's plays rehearsed, performed and acclaimed. Casual Shakespeare buffs will appreciate how the acting customs of the day are presented, how The Globe theater was financed and what became of it. And as De Vere's dramas, comedies and histories become the sensation of London, "our Will" steps out to take the bows.
Emmerich frames all this within the premiere of a "play" in modern-day New York, where the great Derek Jacobi lends legitimacy to these proceedings, debunking "our Shakespeare ... the soul of the age, the wonder of our stage."
Even cursory research punches holes in the theories presented here. But Anonymous is never so wide of the mark as to provoke giggles. The paranoid world of that era is most convincing, and that world could have produced a conspiracy this deep and this enduring.