Shakespeare could not have written his plays, this movie argues, inconclusively.
"Anonymous" is much ado about nothing. Not that the authorship of the greatest plays and poems in the history of the English language is without interest. It's just that the new film painting Shakespeare as a fraud is so disappointingly dopey that it's unworthy of anyone's time.
The premise of the film is that Shakespeare was an illiterate oaf whose entire body of work was ghostwritten by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as coded political attacks on his rivals in the Elizabethan court. "Anonymous" snobbishly argues that an uneducated yokel could never have written so radiantly. By such reasoning, Lincoln must have stolen the Gettysburg Address.
"Anonymous" comes to us from Roland Emmerich, who has already made a movie in which the Revolutionary War was fought with semiautomatic muskets, and another about the aliens who built the pyramids. Later Emmerich revised his stance with a movie about cavemen building the pyramids with domesticated mammoths. "Anonymous" boasts the same level of scholarship.
Shakespeare staged plays well in advance of De Vere's court intrigues. The aristocrat died before the real-life shipwreck that inspired "The Tempest." Shakespeare released five plays written with collaborators following De Vere's death. But so what? In this version of history, Queen Elizabeth I was no virgin: She had so many illegitimate babies that she lost track, forgetfully taking one adult love child back into the royal bedchamber as an incestuous consort. Thank goodness Emmerich didn't include time travelers who built Stonehenge.
If you can ignore the factual errors and the looney-tunes theories, the film has its moments. The production design is striking, from London's grimy pubs and muck-slick streets to breathtaking palaces. Rafe Spall ("Hot Fuzz") makes Shakespeare an entertainingly thick-witted opportunist who revels in his fame with the first stage-dive in recorded history. As De Vere, Rhys Ifans is all heavy-lidded romantic suffering, fully engaged with life only when he can sneak into a box at the Globe Theatre to mouth "his" lines along with the cast. But the acting honors must go to the mother-and-daughter acting team of Vanessa Redgrave as the older Elizabeth, and Joely Richardson as the younger queen. It's two fine actresses in a single seamless performance. What a shame their good work is trapped in a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.