out of Five
Running time: 130
Despite strong production values and an amusing turn from Rafe Spall, Anonymous is a disappointing, over-stuffed and frequently dull drama with dreadful dialogue, dodgy performances, an uneven tone and a poorly structured script.
What's it all about?
Directed by Roland Emmerich, Anonymous opens with ac-tor Derek Jacobi (for it is he) striding onto a stage in modern day New York and announcing that William Shakespeare did not, in fact, write all his plays and sonnets. The film then flashes back to Elizabethan England, where Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford is forbidden to write plays under his own name (playwrighting being apparently frowned upon in polite society) so he persuades playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to pass them off as his own, only for Jonson to refuse and for illiterate, oafish actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to step forward and take the credit after the audience calls for the author.
Meanwhile, further flashbacks reveal Edward's (now played by Jamie Campbell Bower) disturbingly close ties to Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson in flashback, Vanessa Redgrave in her later years) and his subsequent rivalry with villainous hunch-back Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), whom he satirises in Richard III with disastrous results.
The production values are extremely high and Emmerich makes strong use of some impressive CGI scenery to paint a compelling portrait of 16th century London. As for the performances, Rafe Spall is easily the stand-out, but only because he seems to be in a different movie to everyone else and strikes the only notes of humour in the film.
Aside from the fact that it's utter nonsense (not content with trashing Shakespeare, the film tries to contend that Elizabeth had an affair with her own illegitimate son), the film's biggest problem is that the tone is all over the place, with half the actors going for full-on high camp and the other half playing it straight. In addition, there are far too many characters, the flashback sequences are poorly handled and the ironically dreadful dialogue is often unintentionally hilarious (e.g. Helen Baxendale as Edward's wife, telling him off for writing).
On top of that, the pacing drags considerably in the middle section, while the film is further let down by a handful of dodgy performances – Ifans, for example, looks slightly panicked throughout, while Vanessa Redgrave overdoes it as the doddery old Queen and Sebastian Armesto (seemingly cast for his resemblance to James McAvoy) lacks presence as Jonson and resorts to shouting all his lines as a result.
In short, Anonymous is something of a disappointment thanks to a messy script, some dodgy performances and some shockingly dreadful dialogue.