In “Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich submits William Shakespeare’s legacy to the same grim fate as the White House in “Independence Day” and the Sistine Chapel in “2012.” Here, he rips apart the playwright’s legacy with the fringe theory that argues the true author was the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rys Ifans).
The movie’s fundamental conceit, that an aristocrat harbored a closet desire to write plays and paid off an actor to produce them, maintains a fantastical appeal. However, Emmerich takes the story at face value and delivers a film unlike any of his others. That is to say, a boring one.
Elizabethan costumes supplant his penchant for CGI tomfoolery; unadulterated fun gives way to flat drama. Emmerich’s attempt to work on a grand scale of historical fiction dodges its potential for guilty pleasures — and this comes from a man arguably better attuned to guilty pleasures than any other commercial filmmaker working today.
Emmerich’s interest in the pioneer of modern stage drama is intriguing, and he does show an interest in story, no matter how thin, throughout his work. His movies carry out high concept to its fullest extreme, which sets them apart from the mindless action routines of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” trilogy.
Cinema has replaced theater as the dominant form of cultural expression, and Emmerich’s unwieldy disaster movies illustrate cinema’s spectacular possibilities on a primal scale. Shakespeare’s work has been subjected to countless high-concept makeovers, so Emmerich’s interest in a reboot of Shakespeare himself almost makes sense.
However, Emmerich works against his strengths when he tries to play it straight. In “Anonymous,” the concept is established from the start and then drags for more than two hours. Emmerich displays no capacity for legitimate human drama; “Anonymous” reveals that the emperor of spectacle has no clothes.
Strangely enough, the movie arrives in the theaters at the same time that another curious tidbit of Shakespeare news has floated into the pop culture sphere: On Monday, “The Avengers” director Joss Whedon announced that he secretly completed shooting a low-budget, black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” made on a tight production schedule with his usual roster of stars.
The abrupt revelation generated intense excitement, a response that had little to do with the prospects of another Shakespeare adaptation and everything to do with anticipation of another Joss Whedon movie, the cult auteur behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It hardly matters whether or not Shakespeare wrote it; the text exists.
Nevertheless, Emmerich clearly thinks otherwise, churning out a droll costume drama that follows the grief-stricken de Vere through the years in which he keeps his talent a secret in war-stricken Elizabethan England. Desperate to land his works on the stage, partly as a bid to support the rebellion of the 2nd Earl of Essex against Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), he hires young playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to take the credit. Out of his league, Jonson hires a foolish actor — that would be Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) — to front for the work. Tensions mount, Shakespeare grows comfortable in the limelight and the Earl of Oxford continually struggles with suppressing his penchant for composition.
The best part of the Earl’s story has little to do with the Shakespearean conspiracy; it’s an amusingly twisted development surrounding his parentage and the possibilities of incest. When the angle comes to the fore, “Anonymous” hints at the greater possibilities of pure sensationalism that Emmerich generally ignores.
Of course, if Emmerich wants to take a break from the popcorn aesthetic, more power to him. But “Anonymous” has the same clumsy look as his disaster epics without their juvenile appeal. The story’s emotion lies in small moments between the Earl and the various power players in charge of his destiny, but these scenes move sluggishly and are held down by an unseemly blend of self-seriousness and camp.
Emmerich does include a single, ingenious bookend device: The entire story is framed as a Broadway play, with the magisterial Derek Jacobi introducing the drama in front of a packed house. That approach literally sets the stage for an exciting revisionist tale, but nothing that follows lives up to the promise. Emmerich drags Shakespeare into a ditch and flogs his legacy without any modicum of freshness.
Which brings us back to Whedon’s upcoming addition, an exciting project for the same reason that “Anonymous” offers nothing new. From his cleverly episodic “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” to his interaction with fans, Whedon maintains an innovative approach to his brand that makes the prospects of his lo-fi Shakespeare adaptation worthy of the eager response. If Shakespeare’s work is the essence of modern narrative, it now faces the prospects of evolution along with the numerous formats of contemporary storytelling. From amateur iPhone videos and Tumblrs to countless methods of sharing and posting, questions of provenance are less relevant than the specific application of ideas. In Shakespeare’s case, whether or not he wrote anything, the bard belongs to us all.
criticWIRE grade: C-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Realizing that it was a tough sell, Columbia Pictures downgraded the plans for an immediate wide release of “Anonymous” and now plans to open it this weekend in 250 theaters, gradually rolling out the movie across the country. However, given the mixed reaction by critics and the silly premise that might preclude Shakespeare purists, “Anonymous” faces an uphill battle.