Speculation about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays has rattled around academia for centuries. Now, Independence Day director Roland Emmerich has thrown his feathered hat in the ring. He proposes, in the flamboyant costume drama Anonymous, that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, created the English language's most revered comedies and tragedies. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Columbia University Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro has already gotten his panties in a bunch over the tale, since it is a well-known fact that the Hollywood History of the World is always scrupulously factual (joke!).
So, in this version of the truth, we learn that due to Tudor line-of-succession skulduggery, the author of Hamlet and The Tempest was bearded—quite literally, given the day and time—by an illiterate, showboating actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Rather than beginning with the opening of the pages of a storybook, the film starts with the eminent Derek Jacobi on a bare stage giving a dramatic recitation of the film's thesis. The action quickly shifts to a generously CGI-ed Renaissance London, where William Cecil (David Thewlis), a trusted advisor to Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), seeks to preserve his family's power within the royal orbit. He wants to make sure his son Robert (played by Edward Hogg rather a bit too much like Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride) stays in the game, as the Queen dodders and her throne totters. The Cecils are Puritans, so they loathe the theater and everyone associated with it. Thus they look askance at this de Vere fellow (Rhys Ifans), who hobnobs near the throne and is possibly also a dramatist beloved of the groundlings at the Globe.
With Emmerich at the helm, the action zips along, even though sorting out all the relationships takes a bit of concentration at the beginning and a suspension of disbelief toward the end. Fortunately, it's a showcase for a lot of ripping British character actors. Redgrave, encased in elaborate costumes and sporting rotting teeth, brings a sting to her portrait of a monarch clinging to the last vestiges of her power. She's played as a younger queen by her daughter, Joely Richardson, and it's a pleasure seeing members of two generations of the distinguished acting family share a character. Ifans, best known until now as the world's worst roommate (opposite Hugh Grant in Notting Hill), endows de Vere with a weary gravity. Another playwright on the scene, Ben Jonson (the excellent Sebastian Armesto), is the eye of the storm, while Spall (son of actor Timothy) portrays Shakespeare with self-aggrandizing gusto. Thewlis is given too little screen time, which is instead bestowed upon swashbuckling young 'uns Sam Reid and Xavier Samuel.
We live in an age of conspiracy theorists, and Anonymous is a reflection of our times more than Shakespeare's. It's a hoot for literate moviegoers, a treat for theater geeks, a rag on backstage egotists, and an alternate version of the Elizabethan Age. But I seriously doubt that it is history.