Movie Review: Tragedy Of Errors

Roland Emmerich grows tired of destroying civilization as we know it and decides to focus on destroying Shakespeare with Anonymous. This goes about as well as you might expect.


Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is a highly talented playwright and poet. However, due to numerous factors, like the visibility of his station and the charged political commentary in his writing, he cannot publicly claim credit for his work. With the help of poet Ben Johnson (Sebastian Arnesto), credit is given to the boorish actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). At the same time, a battle of succession is happening in the court of the aged Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), and her advisor William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg) see the political content of the popular plays to be a major obstacle to crowning James of Scotland as the next king. 

And if you believe any of that first paragraph, you won’t like the rest of this review.

The Great Conditioner Uprising of 1602.

Anonymous is based on an academic fringe theory asserting that Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems attributed to him. In the past 200 years, 77 people have been suggested as the true author of the work, with de Vere being the most popular. However, this argument has been disproven and debunked countless times by pesky little things like historical fact and empirical evidence. This, coupled with the unwavering support of most of the “anti-Stratfordians,” puts the theory somewhere between the birther movement and creationism in its connection to reality. However, Roland Emmerich’s film handles the issue in the same conspiracy-fueled pretension that Oliver Stone used in JFK. 

The main problem is, of course, Emmerich himself, although John Orloff’s florid-yet-inorganic screenplay shares some of the blame. Over the past 15 years, Emmerich’s most popular movies have all involved some kind of apocalypse: Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012. Even when not blowing up continents, Emmerich focuses on heavy-action genre pieces like The Patriot and 10,000 BC. Anonymous represents a complete change of pace for him, and to say it’s a little ill-suited is like saying the ocean is a little wet. The film is a mess in every way possible. The plot is chaotic and unfocused, the pacing is non-existent, and the mood is turgid and melodramatic with enough “shocking revelation” moments that it might as well be called Beyond the Valley of the Bards.

A rose by any other name would smell as awful.

Emmerich’s attitude towards the audience is ridiculously smug and arrogant, and his utter disregard for historical fact is shockingly ignorant. This last point might be acceptable, if not forgivable, if Anonymous was merely a work of speculative fiction, but Emmerich presents it as little more than two hours of pure enlightenment to be doled out to the teeming, unwashed masses, making sure to keep things lively with a few sex scenes and gun battles (or at least what passed for guns in 1603). The film is played with a leaden, stone-faced seriousness that makes its flimsy arguments in favor of the Oxfordian theory seem like a bad public television re-enactment as played by a community theatre group. Emmerich and Orloff’s attempt to frame the narrative within a play narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi make the unwarranted, self-congratulatory tone of the film even more apparent.

Obey, peasants.

A good cast can make even a bad director’s work mildly enjoyable, but nobody in the cast gives a decent performance, including the numerous veteran British actors in the film who seem to be there only to give the film extra gravitas. Overall, the actors either underplay their lines in severe abuse of the stage whisper or overplay their lines with the belief that loud = dramatic. Rhys Ifans barely registers as de Vere, and it’s impossible to care about anything that happens to him or his alleged writings because of Ifans’ complete lack of emotional investment. Spall’s Will Shakespeare is an absurd caricature, a drunken, inarticulate, opportunistic, whoring boor of a man who probably also kicks puppies and steals from babies when he’s off screen. He even has Snidely Whiplash facial hair. Spall, for his part, does little to nothing to balance the rampant, anti-commoner bias that’s perfectly embodied in his character either through lack of talent or lack of trying. It’s impossible to guess.

The most embarrassing performances come from Vanessa Redgrave and Joley Richardson as the old and young Elizabeth respectively. The film contains numerous flashbacks to de Vere’s youthful affair with Elizabeth, and it makes sense to cast Redgrave and Richardson in the roles since they’re mother and daughter. However, neither one of them gives a convincing or impressive performance, with Redgrave turning the “dottering old fool” dial up to 11 and Richardson acting mostly hysterical while she’s on screen. Just as bad, but not nearly as shameful given their pedigree, is Jamie Campbell Bower as the young de Vere and Xavier Samuel as his good friend (bordering on bromantic with a healthy dose of shudder added about 2/3 of the way through the film) the Earl of Southampton. Both young men seem to have been cast only by Emmerich’s desire to see them in swimwear at the after-wrap pool party. Bower is a poor man’s Ye Olde Johnny Depp, while Samuel has the ability, delivery and golden locks that make him suited only to posing for romance novel covers.

I had Jell-o today!

Regardless of your views on Shakespeare’s authorship, Anonymous is an insulting, plodding, dull, unfocused junk heap of a film. It has a horribly elitist message at its core, namely that only a man of noble breeding and full resources could possibly have written the greatest works in the English language, that no mere commoner could possibly have done it. At the same time, the noble characters in the film speak of writing in the same tones used for heroin addiction in an afterschool special, implying that ONLY commoners would engage in it. It’s as off-putting and unbalancing as Emmerich’s total disregard for history and logic, if not more so. The posters of the film ask: “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” The more pressing and immediate question might be: “Is Roland Emmerich a pretentious hack?” The answer is an unequivocal yes. 

Rating: 1 out of 10 / F

Lord JOHNNY M, 7th Earl of Snark-Upon-Film, is a frequent FBOTU contributor.<a data-cke-saved-href=”; href=”; title=”<img src=” http:=”””&#8221; images=”” uploads=”” johnnyportrait2.jpg”=”” style=”border: 0;” alt=”image” width=”74″ height=”100″>image