Jamie Campbell Bower, left, plays the younger Earl of Oxford,… (Courtesy of Columbia Pictures )
"Anonymous" is not shy about naming names. It contends that the 37 plays attributed to William Shakespeare, who died in 1616, actually were written by the Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604.
As this story has it, the barely literate commoner Shakespeare fronted for the highly literate and politically well-connected nobleman Oxford. Consequently, such late Shakespeare plays as "The Tempest" reputedly would have been written many years earlier, stockpiled, and then eventually released under Shakespeare's name.
Beyond a few documented biographical facts, not much is known about Shakespeare's life. What amounts to an Elizabethan cottage industry has been built around speculation as to how an actor of humble origins became the greatest playwright in the English language.
Although most Shakespeare scholars have grown hoarse refuting the Oxford-as-Shakespeare theory, "Anonymous" can't be bothered with scholarly details.
This comedy bluntly proceeds on the assumption that aristocrats make better writers.
Although this handsomely staged costume picture is appealing as a farcical soap opera, its relentlessly heavy treatment of its dubious premise remains mildly irritating even as you are enjoying the evocation of early 17th-century London.
Director Roland Emmerich, whose credits include "10,000 BC" and "2012," has never shown much intellectual insight into either the past or the future. He knows how to deliver in terms of production value, but his values otherwise are suspect.
The director's thuddingly obvious thematic treatment is evident from the very beginning of "Anonymous," as a present-day revisionist authority of some sort tells a packed theater that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays. It's telling in another sense that the unnamed authority delivering this prologue is played by an esteemed classical actor, Derek Jacobi, whose over-the-top delivery is a near-embarrassing preview of coming Elizabethan attractions.
As the movie flashes back to Shakespeare's day, er, Oxford's day, er, whoever's day it was, most of the actors cast as actual Elizabethan celebrities wave their arms and shout a lot. Likewise, the crowds at the Globe Theatre and the common people out in the streets all do their part to make merry olde England seem like a land where understatement is forbidden.
All the world's a stage for hammy behavior in a movie that seems like "Shakespeare in Love" without the wit.
The boisterous atmosphere does grab your attention, but it may not consistently hold your attention. That's because Emmerich's frantic direction and John Orloff's time-jumping script make for a narrative jumble. There's no confusion as "Anonymous" jumps from the 21st century back to late-16th and early-17th-century London, but it's slightly confusing that it keeps bouncing around in time during that earlier period.
Played by Jamie Campbell Bower as a young man and Rhys Ifans as an older man, the Earl of Oxford allegedly has a love affair with Queen Elizabeth I, played by Joely Richardson as a young woman and her real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as an older woman.
Although the arc of their romantic relationship always comes across, the time-hopping editing strategy makes it seem even choppier than the subjects who sometimes lost their heads on the chopping block.
Equally choppy is the professional relationship between the elegant and ardent Earl of Oxford and the rough-mannered Shakespeare, played by Rafe Spall as a bumbling hedonist. Imagine Jack Black in the role and you have some idea of just how broad the playing tends to be where the Bard is concerned.
Oxford's main motive for paying Shakespeare to pretend he's the author of the plays is that the aristocrat's position at court would be endangered if his name were attached to plays. After all, the disreputable realm of the theater was no place for an aristocrat with lofty ambitions. Even if you buy Oxford's motivation, the whole literary scam seems like a borderline-implausible situation. It's not helped any by acting so extroverted and editing so jumpy that you wonder how anybody has the time to either write great lines or rehearse them.
Nearly lost within this noisy mess, the English playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe are dealt with in such a hasty fashion that you'd never suspect they were major talents in their own right. This is literary history as mixed in a blender.
So much goes wrong in this hyperactive movie that it's a wonderful relief to watch Vanessa Redgrave as a long-reigning monarch heading into her twilight years on the throne. In a subdued performance that's all the more remarkable under these circumstances, Redgrave emphases the effort that the elderly queen must put into maintaining her regal appearance and also the effort she must make to suppress her deep feeling for Oxford. Then again, may she's just trying to keep a straight face presiding over such a campy court. Grade: B-
"Anonymous" (PG-13) is now playing at area theaters.