The less you know about Shakespeare, the more you're likely to enjoy Anonymous, a speculative costume drama that posits the Bard as an illiterate bumpkin, the Virgin Queen as guilty of false advertising and almost everything that happened in the Elizabethan Age as a needlessly convoluted conspiracy to fool future generations.
Originally written a dozen years ago, John Orloff's screenplay was shelved after another mock Tudor script, co-written by Tom Stoppard, became the Oscar-winning comedy Shakespeare in Love. While that script was wittily irreverent about its historical conjecture, Anonymous takes its absurdities seriously. The movie is essentially an earnest illustration of the cockamamie theory that Shakespeare's works were ghost written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, though the literary scam barely scratches the surface of a muddle of political intrigues, blackmail, incest and murder.
We begin in contemporary Manhattan, where Sir Derek Jacobi walks out onto a Broadway stage to introduce a play that promises to tell the real story behind Shakespeare's works. After yet another prologue, in which the playwright Ben Jonson is being tortured to reveal the true secrets of who wrote Shakespeare's plays, we jump back in time again to the film's main story. Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), a world-weary, impoverished aristocrat, is looking back on his life and the intrigues surrounding Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave).
In flashbacks, we see the young de Vere as a literary prodigy (he writes and stages A Midsummer Night's Dream at age nine!) who is raised by the puritanical royal adviser Robert Cecil (David Thewlis). When young de Vere kills a servant who's hiding behind a curtain (an event later recycled in "his" play, Hamlet) the conniving Cecil blackmails the young Earl into marrying his daughter and giving up literature. Married or not, the young Earl (Jamie Campbell Bower) becomes the lover to the randy young Elizabeth (Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson), until a falling-out sees him banished from the court.
Years later, the middle-aged de Vere (Ifans, again) attends one of those newfangled popular plays and instantly recognizes the form as a vehicle for propaganda to counter the court influence of Cecil and his creepy son (Edward Hogg). De Vere secretly contacts playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to stage de Vere's play under Jonson's name, but the scrupulous author declines. Instead, a buffoonish illiterate hack actor, Will Shakespeare ( Shaun of the Dead's Rafe Spall), jumps at the opportunity and becomes de Vere's improbably clownish front man.
In an unintentional irony, Shakespeare (as played by Spall) very nearly manages to steal the drama after all, providing the movie's few moments of comic relief as the fake Bard. When the crowd calls "Author!" he comes to the front of the stage and babbles like an inarticulate award-show winner, and even surfs across the arms of the groundlings like a rock star.
Apart from these few light moments, Anonymous is a case of ingenuity wasted on an unintelligent enterprise: All the elegant costumes and exposition-filled dialogue in shadowy candle-lit rooms is to justify the snobbish claim that a humble glovemaker's son couldn't possibly outwrite his better-educated blue-blood peers.
Some compensation is provided by a flawless English cast, which adds substance to the theory. Vanessa Redgrave provides an especially vivid turn as the frail, tempestuous old Queen, hiding her discoloured teeth behind a gloved hand.
Also noteworthy is this odd career departure for blockbuster maker Roland Emmerich ( 2012, Independence Day). Though his directing is utterly conventional, he does a fine job with CGI models and sets to recreate the world of London of four centuries ago. That includes the legendary "wooden O" of the Globe Theatre, where we watch fragments of the plays, though with scenes oddly out of order, still working their magic. What an amazing special effect: A actor on a bare wooden stage, using nothing but a sequence of words that make your scalp prickle.