An improbable fiction

Wednesday October 26th 2011

Though the bulk of the movie is set in a beautifully rendered Elizabethan London, Roland Emmerich’s historical epic Anonymous opens with a big shiny aerial shot of modern-day New York — presumably a consolation prize to anyone hoping for another Godzilla. Down at street level we see jolly old Derek Jacobi hopping out of a cab and rushing into a theatre, which happens to be showing a play called … (wait for it) … Anonymous. You see what they’ve done there. Inside, Jacobi is shepherded on stage just as the curtains rise to deliver a short speech, a sort of prologue for the movie, the gist of which is:

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See also: Dead for ten years, Betsy.

From there we’re thrust back four hundred years to the time of William Shakespeare, a bumbling young actor from Stratford who’s asked by the wealthy Earl of Oxford to take credit for his plays. He willingly agrees to the deception, throwing himself and his contemporaries into the shady (and slightly boring) world of 16th Century politics.

If, from my use of the words ’16th Century politics’, you’re beginning to suspect that this isn’t your average Roland Emmerich movie, then you’d be correct. Few could ever have predicted that he’d be the man to bring the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship to the screen and fewer still would have imagined the result to be anything like Anonymous.

The film has a certain amount in common with Emmerich’s earlier films. Like 10,000 BC it has little interest in historical accuracy; like 2012 it’s based on a wild and blatantly false fringe theory; and like almost all of the films he’s churned out during a career spanning three decades, its characters are all insane pantomimic archetypes. Rafe Spall’s Will Shakespeare spends most of the movie wobbling around like a hyperactive Elizabethan Stan Laurel, while newcomer Trystan Gravelle boldly employs the Cheshire Cat as his model for Christopher Marlowe.

For a while this heretical approach to Shakespeare makes for a pretty solid film, that is until Emmerich realises he’s Doing A Drama and drops the knockabout Bard LOLs in favour of scene after scene of badly-written conversations about duty and honour and the like, half-heartedly delivered by a group of talented British actors who should know better. The whole thing quickly becomes as tedious as 2012 — if in a decidedly different way — and you start to wonder how much time and money you could have saved by staying at home and re-watching Shakespeare in Love.

The answer is 130 torturously slow minutes and about £10.