Director Roland Emmerich has lied to us. Last year at Comic Con's panel for 2012, he said he made that film in the hopes of ending his reign as the King of Disaster Movies. He needed to destroy the entire planet, and only then he could move on. At first glance his next film Anonymous appears to be a genre shift into period pieces, but really, he's just destroying Shakespeare instead. What gives, Roland? My enthusiasm for watching everything I like be blown to smithereens, be it literally or figuratively, is waning. And using this script that was about as exciting as freezing to death in the snow didn't help at all, either.
I understand that it's fun to play Let's Pretend This Guy We Put on a Pedestal Is a Phony. Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff expand on the idea that The Bard, the man whose work is the basis of so much of our art, wasn't the genius we make him out to be. In fact, they argue he is a complete fraud, owing his success instead to the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans), the true author of over 100 world-changing pieces of literature.
Imagine a world where poetry and art were compared to devil worship by some more conservative thinkers. Therefore, a man of power such as the Earl had to express himself in secret, and his work could only be heard by bribing a lowly, common playwright to put his name on it instead (Ben Jonson, played by Sebastian Armesto). But much like the plays themselves, nothing goes according to plan. A reluctant Jonson tells his illiterate actor friend Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) about the opportunity, who seizes it and steals the limelight…and the cash. In the meantime, various political machinations are taking place, like aging Queen Elizabeth I's (Vanessa Redgrave) manipulative advisors trying to sneak in their political allies as her successor. Everything gets tangled up in a big Elizabethan mess, and it's only art that will endure. Well, that and those fancy crowns the royals wear.
There is an interesting story in this script buried among brain-busting royal titles and tedious arguments about how powerful/shameful words are, but Emmerich treats the subject with about the same delicacy as a bull in a china shop, beating us over the head with certain references and keeping other things a secret, like who in the world these people are. One is expected to know everything about British politics and have all the names of British nobility memorized, or else suffer through the slow reveal of key information. Then it starts flip-flopping back and forth in time, and there's only so many times you can hear the Earl say things like "words will prevail" and "my poems are my soul" before you're ready to burn books yourself.
Of course the costumes and scenery are magnificent, as is usually the case for big-budget period dramas. The acting is also first rate, giving Rhys Ifans a part that doesn't involve him acting like a lanky weirdo. The movie gets extra points for Edward Hogg, who plays the evil hunchback Robert Cecil that looks exactly like Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride. But all in all the dreary script creates a glass ceiling that the film could never bust through, more laugh-inducing than controversy-inspiring. Especially in moments when an angry wife yells, "You're writing again?!" the audience reacted like it was The Comedy of Errors, not Macbeth.