Anonymous: A Pointless Elizabethan Thriller

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is the close-second candidate for authorship of the 37 plays of William Shakespeare—who, due to the troublesome existence of evidence, remains the general favorite. De Vere, played as a figure of regal isolation by Rhys Ifans, is the protagonist of Anonymous, a work of speculative fiction that assumes the Earl’s secret authorship as fact. A member of the peerage, De Vere hatches a plan to use the power of theater to sway public opinion in support of his young friend, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), in his bid to succeed the aging Queen Elizabeth. They are opposed in this by Elizabeth’s father-and-son advisers William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg), who wish to see James of Scotland on the throne—and are, inconveniently, De Vere’s in-laws. De Vere, having sworn to his wife’s family that he would set down his pen, first chooses fellow playwright Ben Jonson as the public face to take credit for his verse—but the credit is usurped by a drunken, whoremongering actor named, you guessed it, Bill Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). Although Shakespeare was known to turn out some rather juiced-up histories himself, it is the particular idiocy of our time that the past is apparently only marketable via Da Vinci Code conspiratorial jabbering, here degrading the canon to the level of the potboiler. With better performances than it has any right to, Anonymous is only sporadically enjoyable as camp.