Elizabethan scholars may dispute the version of events recounted in “Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich’s exploration of who really wrote the plays and poems history attributes to William Shakespeare, but those of us in the cheap seats (with suitable temperament) will have to admire how the director of “2012” and “Independence Day” took a topic appropriate for a doctoral thesis and turned it into a melodramatic potboiler.
Think of “Anonymous” more along the lines of the bosomy intrigue and nighttime-soap operatics “The Other Boleyn Girl” and less akin to the more serious “Elizabeth,” and you’ll be in the right frame of mind for this trashy treat.
Sir Derek Jacobi, one of this generation’s leading interpreters of the Bard, struts upon a Broadway stage and begins spelling out the case against the working-class, semi-illiterate Shakespeare having been the author of his timeless works. As Jacobi’s speech ends, we’re on the muddy, pestilent streets of 17th century London, where playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is on the run from royal guards, hiding a cache of manuscripts.
The provenance of those papers takes us into multiple flashbacks, wherein Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff (“Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole”) posit that the real author behind “Richard III” and “Romeo and Juliet” was Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford. Having to keep his identity hidden for a variety of reasons — most of them having to do with his powerful and treacherous father-in-law, William Cecil (David Thewlis) — Edward pays Jonson to take credit for his work.
Having seen audiences moved by works of theater, Edward realizes that this medium can be used to rally the masses and score political points against those in power. But since Jonson has his own writing career (with an ego to match), he winds up sub-contracting the gig as Edward’s front to William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a boozy actor who eventually lets his unearned fame go to his head.
“Anonymous” periodically pops out Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits like the assassination of Julius Caesar or Henry V giving the St. Crispin’s Day speech, always in a way that advances Edward’s political plotting of the moment. (If you were hoping for moments from “Cymbeline” or “Troilus and Cressida,” forget it; the movie sticks to the best-known works and only presents them in a plot-advancing context.)
Knowing that non-“Masterpiece Theater” audiences will grow fidgety over this sort of thing, Emmerich and Orloff throw in plenty of sword-fighting, bear-baiting, and bodice-ripping. (The latter literally occurs when Queen Elizabeth I, played memorably by Vanessa Redgrave, loosens her corset over being so moved by the intrigues of “Hamlet.”)
Much of the villainy here is of the mustache-twirling variety. The palace intrigue is spelled out in broad strokes so that even the groundlings can follow it; it’s the sort of movie where the clouds burst forth only when it can rain on someone, significantly. But for all of its excesses, “Anonymous” is never dull, and it always looks terrific. Supervising art director Stephan O. Gessler and his team make everything from dingy pubs lit by firelight to the royal bedchambers feel lived-in and realistic.
Ifans, who has made his deepest impression playing literally shaggy characters in films like “Notting Hill,” cleans up extraordinarily well, giving Edward de Vere the soul of an artist combined with the necessary deviousness to survive in court. (Jamie Campbell Bower, a vet of both the “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” franchises, comes off like a cross between Matthew Lillard and “the cute one” from any ’90s boy band as the young Edward.)
Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson make a nifty set of bookends as the older and younger Elizabeth, respectively, and best of all is Thewlis, who takes what could have been a cardboard bad-guy and imbues him with a chilling lust for power. His presence lingers on even after William Cecil’s death and helps make a long third-act monologue by Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg) — explaining everything that Edward and the audience hasn’t known up until that point — more bearable.
Freshmen in English Lit classes of the future would be advised not to take the theories of “Anonymous” as gospel, but if you’re in the mood to watch people in doublets stab each other through curtains and angrily slam down flagons of ale, you’ll have fun with this tale of sound and fury.