Film about Shakespeare controversy comes off as pretentious, boring

Alex Williams

“Anonymous” director Roland Emmerich played a large part in getting the film made, but a man famous for bringing audiences explosion-happy apocalyptic films such as “Independence Day” and “2012” should probably stay away from the period pieces.

“Anonymous” is by no means Emmerich’s trademark disaster fare, but that doesn’t stop the film from being a straight-up disaster, something that becomes clearer with each self-serious, excruciatingly overwrought frame of the film.

Based upon a theory that William Shakespeare’s many seminal works weren’t actually written by the great author, “Anonymous” posits the author was instead the Earl of Oxford (an unrecognizable Rhys Ifans). Shakespeare (played here by a drunken, idiotic Rafe Spall) isn’t even the Earl’s first choice for a public face for his plays, which can never be published under his own name due to the British royalty’s disdain for playwriting. However, when Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), another playwright, rejects the Earl’s offer, both he and Shakespeare are loosely drawn into the Earl’s web of Victorian intrigue, which includes a passionate affair with Queen Elizabeth (played by mother-daughter duo Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave).

If all of that sounds incredibly dry and convoluted, that’s because it really, truly is. “Anonymous” fails on a basic storytelling level in every way, unable to decide if it wants to be a large-scale tragedy (despite lacking engaging characters or plot), or just a really long episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — despite missing that show’s pulpy satisfaction. Either way, the film wouldn’t work, simply because Emmerich’s take on the Shakespearean mythos is so clumsily handled and unconvincing that audiences will dismiss the theory simply because of the turd of a movie that presents it.

There are a few redeeming qualities, though they are few and far between. The film’s theatrical bookends, centered on monologues delivered by the reliable Derek Jacobi, are a clever framing device, and Emmerich’s construction of Victorian-era London is detailed and extremely impressive.

As always, Shakespeare’s writing is a fascinating thing to watch on-screen, and the film’s most powerful scenes involve the performance of one of the Bard’s many plays and manages to portray a few interesting ideas about the power of art. On the acting side, many of the performances range from scenery-chewing to dull delivery of dusty dialogue, but Vanessa Redgrave stands out as the half-mad Queen, selling every beat of the queen’s sense of betrayal as her mental stability is stripped out from under her.

Unfortunately, Redgrave’s is the only performance that’s worth noticing. The rest of the characters range from bland to indistinguishable from others, something only hurt by the two timelines the film alternates between. As various Earls are introduced to us via pompous exposition without any reason to exist in the story, the film gets bogged down. Even when the overall story arc begins to take shape, the muddled screenplay has kept us at arm’s length for so long that it’s hard to care what happens. The script’s lack of subtlety and an incredibly ill-advised final twist make “Anonymous” even more frustrating to watch.

Usually with passion projects such as “Anonymous” one can usually find something to like, some sort of messy charm to the film that makes it worth watching despite its flaws.

However, “Anonymous” makes the biggest mistake a film can make: It’s boring, presenting a half-baked — at least in the film — theory that suggests a lowly commoner such as William Shakespeare could never have the writing ability of the high royalty the Earl of Oxford inhabits. There might be some clumsy social commentary to be pulled from that, but to do so would require more thought and effort than Roland Emmerich appears to have put into this mess of a film, so it simply doesn’t seem worth it. And watching the film? Maybe a good idea if you’re looking for something to put you to sleep in five minutes, because to sit through “Anonymous” is a chore — in every sense of the word.

Printed on Friday, October 28, 2011 as: 'Anonymous' suffers from convoluted plot