Through his 2000-Year-Old Man character, Mel Brooks sniped memorably at Shakespeare (“The First Folios? Terrible penmanship!”), and Anonymous can’t help suggest, with its deeply dopey plotting and occasional flirtations with Brooks-style broadness, how the material might’ve been salvaged with outright spoofery. The film’s promotion of the renegade thesis that nobleman Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the works that have been credited to the common-born Bard of Stratford has ignited new brushfires in the media, but doesn’t even command the attention of scenarist John Orloff or “stretching” disaster-potboiler director Roland Emmerich for very long; most of their countermyth is instead devoted to panting at tedious royal-court backstabbing and bodice-ripping, with the question of how many of the major characters are bastard sons of Queen Elizabeth serving as its climactic cliffhanger.
And hence, after a pretentious prologue offered in a Broadway theater by Derek Jacobi, and myriad swooping aerial CGIs of London circa 1600, the liberating effect of Rafe Spall’s burlesque of Willie Shakes as a vain, semiliterate drunken actor, eager to front for the secretive, politically motivated Oxford (Rhys Ifans, solemn but blameless) when Romeo and Juliet wows the groundlings, and after principled Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) demurs. But Spall’s appearances are brief, and the rest of the cast struggles, through dank street sets and sickly sepia interiors, to bring any semblance of life, or camp, to this literary conspirators’ hangover. “Edward, you’ve been…writing again!” cries de Vere’s missus, but the conceit that he uses Hamlet’s Polonius and Richard III as propagandistic assaults on Her Majesty’s villainous father-and-son advisers (hissing, Pythonesque David Thewlis and hump-laden Edward Hogg) to prevent their favored James of Scotland from inheriting the crown comes off as baldly absurd.
Shuttling back and forth in the chronology of Elizabeth’s relationship with the star-crossed earl to minimal effect, Anonymous fetishizes Jamie Campbell Bower as young Edward; he’s the most coltish of the movie’s lippy male ingenues, but also a stand-and-pose aristo who appears to be in search of a runway instead of his muse. De Vere recites from Twelfth Night’s “present laughter” song as cougar Queen Bess (Joely Richardson) goes down on him, a perfect illustration that the movie’s worst instincts are nearly its only entertaining ones. (As the waning, fearful monarch, Richardson’s mother Vanessa Redgrave adds some near-miraculous vulnerability in this context, her finger-sucking and childlike giggles an elderly echo of her sex-maddened nun in Ken Russell’s The Devils.) “One never knows with the Tudors,” clucks the malevolent Hogg as he drops an incest accusation in the last act, before this loping travesty grinds to a valedictory halt, but Anonymous leaves one bereft of any meaningful knowledge of these personages or the theatrical energy of their age, and earns the obscurity it figures to acquire even if the war between Team Edward and Team William blazes on.