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Blow up your Shakespeare: Director Emmerich blasts the Bard in ‘Anonymous’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011

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The ads for “Anonymous’’ ask, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?’’ I don’t have an answer. But if I needed one, would I turn to the director of “Stargate,’’ “Independence Day,’’ “The Day After Tomorrow,’’ “2012,’’ “10,000 BC,’’ and one very dull Godzilla movie? Of course! Roland Emmerich destroys things for a living. Why not the reputation of a man who lacked the imagination to blow up the Sistine Chapel?

Emmerich’s soap opera “Anonymous’’ contends that the actual author of “Romeo and Juliet’’ and “Henry V,’’ to name two disputed works, was one Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford - a soldier, poet, and, among many other trades, a playwright, who, because of one lord’s royal distrust of the arts, had to secret away his 16th-century masterpieces. But desperate to be heard, de Vere angles for the prison release of a commoner and his dramaturgical contemporary, the satirist Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), whom he backs into a plot to get his plays staged. The works need a public face, and in a bit of comic happenstance, that face winds up belonging to a deviled ham in Jonson’s troupe named William Shakespeare, who’s played with exuberant dashes of paprika by Rafe Spall.

Meanwhile, de Vere continues to struggle with the forbidding Lord William Cecil (David Thewlis), a trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave and, in flashbacks, her daughter Joely Richardson). Cecil banned Edward from writing poems and plays because they promoted the sinful worship of false idols. Cecil’s greed is another matter. He forces de Vere to marry his daughter in order to get at his fortune. But de Vere had already been thoroughly seduced by the queen. The news of the affair only drives Lord William closer to becoming Lord Voldemort.

Yes, “Anonymous’’ is about 15 movies, at least 11 of which we’ve seen before, several of which I haven’t even mentioned. The moviemaking is proficient, if unremarkable. I like the idea of an Elizabethan action movie apparently more than I enjoy watching one. It is fun watching Redgrave, who’s almost as exciting as Spall is, don the red curls and powdered face while flapping her hands, feigning dottiness, and being a touch randy. So this is what awaits Cate Blanchett’s steely monarch: a stint on “Golden Girls.’’

The trouble with what Emmerich and the screenwriter John Orloff have done has nothing to do with its revisionism. Everything about Shakespeare is open to interpretation. Among certain scholars, that includes his very authorship. But Emmerich appears to be reaching for great dramatic heights despite having extremely short arms, which he uses instead to swing bombastically at his point.

The gist of “Anonymous’’ is as plausible as any conspiracy theory formed by gaps in the historical record. Emmerich, of course, is so delighted to expose Shakespeare as a hack and a fraud that it feels like the work of a sleazy lawyer throwing the book at a corpse.

The participation of Redgrave, Thewlis, and, in small parts, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, only seems to inflame Emmerich’s comical egotism: See, they agree! For us, it’s incongruous, like putting filet mignon in a Quarter Pounder With Cheese. It’s also possible that Emmerich simply identified with being incapable of producing art and gathered strength from working with actors who know from Shakespeare. Regardless, “Anonymous’’ is trash that reminds us its disaster-obsessed maker is what Jonson might have called a poetaster. Emmerich is a camp artist, someone who doesn’t know his work is ridiculous, which, at times, is a backhanded hoot for us. When Mrs. de Vere sees the pages of her husband’s folio and tearfully exclaims, “You’re . . . writing. Again,’’ you laugh. Not at her horror, per se. But the way she’s captured ours.

Wesley Morris can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

ANONYMOUS Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: John Orloff

Starring: Rhys Ifans, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, and Vanessa Redgrave

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, and suburbs

Running time: 130 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some violence and royal sexual content)

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