It's been a long time since a great performance has been given in a terrible film, but that is what occurs in Anonymous. Unfortunately, said performance isn't nearly enough to recommend anyone to actually slog through this tripe.
Anonymous is a story of political intrigue set against the backdrop of the tail-end of Queen Elizabeth I's reign of England, and the Essex Rebellion against her. For centuries scholars have argued if William Shakespeare truly wrote all of his classics, and this film highlights one of the many conspiracies that positions another hand on the quill.
In this case, that hand belongs to Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). Orphaned and taken in by the Queen's adviser, William Cecil (David Thewlis), he quickly squabbles with William about the importance of art and poetry. He marries William's daughter, but never takes a liking to Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), William's only son, who will be a thorn in his side for the rest of his life.
Edward confesses to hearing voices, and the only way to quiet them is to put them on paper. By doing this, he amasses a library of plays without a forum to see them performed, since it would be scandalous for someone of nobility to even admit to such frivolousness. Recognizing an opportunity to change the political climate with his works, he approaches a budding playwright, Ben Jonson, with the proposition of placing Jonson's name on these works for pay and fame. Jonson's integrity quickly bristles at this, but a budding actor named Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) loves the idea.
I won't spoil anything else, but let me say that the film is already spoiled, as it's a big ol' stinkeroo. The entire marketing campaign was based on director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) proudly declaring, "This is my serious movie; this is the one that won't feature the world exploding!"
That's kind of the problem, though. You have this foundation for a film, based on a historical literary figure, a conspiracy theory that's been around for a couple of centuries... and you give it to the guy that helmed 2012? Now I realize he very well may have brought the story to the studio, but this is one time that I would justify the artist being robbed.
From top to bottom the film is ineptly directed. It opens and closes on a modern-day stage, and believe me when I tell you this was a bad idea from conception. Rhys Ifans is game from the beginning, giving Edward the appearance of a man curled up, waiting to strike out at his enemies at a moment's notice, but Emmerich chooses to make him little more than a cuckold by the end.
If there is a reason to watch this film at some point, be it on Netflix or DVD or on TNT some rainy weekend in the future, it is for Mr. Hogg's performance as Robert Cecil. I realize I tend to find at least one good performance in a bad movie to highlight, but Mr. Hogg gives, what I believe as of right now at least, the best acting performance of the year. Playing the queen's advisor in her twilight years, and Edward's personal nemesis, he at first seems little more than your garden variety "bad guy." However, in the final thirty minutes of the film, Hogg, with little more than slight glances here and there, actually turned my opinion around a bit and made me see things from his perspective. To be honest, Edward is a bit of a douche.
If you couldn't tell, I didn't care for this movie. The way Emmerich has the actors scoff while spitting out lines like, "Shakespeare wrote all these plays? The son of a glovemaker," made me consider sitting with the half-dozen Occupy Raleigh folks in protest. We're in good movie season; go watch one of those instead.