William Shakespeare and Roland Emmerich – it couldn't be a better combination, could it? The English wordsmith responsible for some of the greatest plays and most iconic characters of all time, and the German director for whom words and characters are of secondary importance to huge explosions. Emmerich has made a career from destroying major cities and iconic landmarks, but in his new film Anonymous he has turned his attention to the attacking reputation of a single man, as he explores the notion that Shakespeare didn't actually write the extraordinary body of work that is attributed to him. There have been many debates over the true authorship of Shakespeare's plays, but this theory, scripted by John Orloff, suggests that all of his writing actually emerged under the quill of Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
According to Anonymous, De Vere (played by Rhys Ifans) was the true literary genius; a man who (if one of the film's many flashbacks is to be believed) wrote and performed A Midsummer Night's Dream as a child and continued to write in secret for the rest of his days. Such lowly activity apparently brought shame upon his family ("You're...writing again!" his wife exclaims, in the tone of a woman discovering her husband's affair) in this puritanical age, and therefore De Vere needs somebody to claim credit for his works. He approaches playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) but this position is usurped by bawdy, drunken actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), who immediately lets the widespread acclaim for "his" plays go to his head (even crowdsurfing at one point. Seriously).
Spall's characterisation of Shakespeare as a reckless, opportunistic loudmouth is cheap, but it's also the film's most entertaining element and it made me wish that Anonymous would unfold as a comedic Blackadder-style romp, but Emmerich mostly plays it with a straight bat. He concocts a complex web of intrigue to explain De Vere's motivations – suggesting that Polonius and Richard III were thinly veiled caricatures of his political rivals – but such densely plotted shenanigans are not this director's forte, and he quickly loses his grasp on the flashback-heavy structure. By the time Emmerich got around to portraying the Virgin Queen (played by both Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave) as a harlot who had illegitimate children hidden all over London, I was both confused and bored. Anonymous would be most palatable as high camp, but while it does offer moments of unintentional hilarity, it's too long and too ponderous to entertain on that level.
As Anonymous arrives in cinemas some have wondered what the effect of the film will be on our perception of Shakespeare and – more importantly – on how younger generations will view him. They needn't worry, because this is nothing more than a bloated and silly period soap opera that's too trivial to have any merit, even if the presence of noted Shakespeare-sceptics Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance in the cast may seem to give it a veneer of credibility. Shakespeare's reputation has endured over two centuries of questioning by a variety of great writers and thinkers, so I'm confident it will survive an exposé from the man who made 10,000 BC without sustaining much lasting damage.