You’ve caught me in the middle of a riddle, because I’m trying to think up a movie dumber than Anonymous, and so far I’m coming up short. It’s not pure silliness of the Freddy Got Fingered variety, no, it’s that special kind of dumb that can only regurgitate from the mouth of someone who thinks they’re smart. I’m not even talking (yet) about the Oxfordian Theory of Shakespearean Authorship that the film commits to. I am speaking only of the beautiful ridiculousness of its plot, its characters, and its philosophies, many of which are so luxuriously tawdry that they’d have been dismissed by even the kookiest daytime soap opera. Anonymous is one of the most garish and unintentionally hilarious movies of a year that already brought you Atlas Shrugged and Sucker Punch. 2011 might go on the record books for these flicks alone.
The story is that of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, played with unusual restraint by Rhys Ifans. De Vere, we learn, wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a lad of maybe ten years old, and went on as a teenager to seduce Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson as a lass, her mother Vanessa Redgrave as a greying monarch) into performing orally sexual acts on him while he unloads gobs and gobs of poetry on her. But as an older man he’s reduced to relative poverty, for a nobleman anyway, and after spying one of Ben Jonson’s plays decides to use Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) as a proxy, through whom he might finally unveil his bookcase of unpublished works, like Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet. But Jonson is slow to reach the stage at the end of the first showing of Henry V, and the more nimble William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, Timothy’s son) steals all the credit.
Anonymous demonstrates little respect for the famed writers of the age. Shakespeare is nearly illiterate, possibly a coldblooded murderer and definitely a cad of the highest order. Christopher Marlowe arches his eyebrows with impish glee and betrays his fellow scribes at every turn (even though most of the film takes place well after his actual death). And Jonson is a poor bastard who comes to regret not taking credit for another man’s works. Meanwhile, the people of London are portrayed as a throng of dolts so easily manipulated that the climax revolves around de Vere writing Richard III specifically to make them riot, which indeed they do. Only the rich and powerful are capable of greatness, this movie espouses. They may spend most of their time participating in gauche power plays and slanderous sexual depravity, but even so, they’re the only characters in the film who have an impact on history. It’s a horrifically elitist movie, Anonymous, which is fitting given the concept.
I don’t know if William Shakespeare was the true author of his works, and frankly I don’t care. Some claim that if de Vere were actually the author of Shakespeare’s works they would have to be completely reinterpreted, which I suppose is true. But to hear Anonymous tell it, if de Vere was the actual “soul of the age” (as the film repeatedly describes him) then his works were little more than eloquent political propaganda, and failed political propaganda at that. It doesn't seem to be any more interesting than the alternative. Worse, since there’s no concrete evidence to support the theory upon which the film was based; it all seems to boil down to an inherent disbelief that a "commoner" could have even been capable of writing such genuine beauty, and that particular brand of snobbery comes across in every frame of Anonymous. That Einstein was a patent clerk means nothing: I get the distinct impression that in a few hundred years somebody will claim he was just a patsy for Bertrand Russell or something.
But beyond that observation, which is my own (not just my own, but I digress), Anonymous is so gloriously campy on its own merits that it can hardly be believed. It’s like someone edited all the boobs and blood out of a Ken Russell film and tried to pretend it wasn’t satire. There's so much lurid theatricality that I was surprised a musical number never broke out. Yes, Anonymous is so enormously absurd that I can’t help but recommend it as a broad comedy, but as the deadly serious drama it so clearly wants to be, it’s one of the worst of the year.
CRAVEONLINE RATING (Actual Quality): 2/10
CRAVEONLINE RATING (Entertainment Value): 8.5/10