A flamboyant, funny, sexy performance from Rhys Ifans livens up "Anonymous," which is often a heavy-handed and needlessly complicated exploration of the theory that maybe William Shakespeare didn't really write all those plays and sonnets after all.
Instead, the film suggests, Ifans' Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the true author but he had to disguise his identity because his writing so often provided pointed criticism of royal scandals and foibles, and because the mere thought of involvement with the theater seemed so indecent. It's a provocative, intellectual idea, the implications of which turn increasingly soapy and irrelevant as the film progresses.
Roland Emmerich works from his meatiest and most sophisticated script yet, the work of John Orloff - then again, we are talking about the director of "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012." And all the rich period detail is in place, alongside the kind of big, sweeping aerial shots you'd expect from the maker of blockbusters.
But the script jumps back and forth in time so quickly and without rhyme or reason, it convolutes the narrative rather than propelling it forward. You will have to stop several times to remind yourself who is who; you may even need a flow chart to keep track of all the sons, and sons of sons. At the same time, "Anonymous" is too often on-the-nose, quoting Shakespeare's most famous words: the "To be or not to be" speech from "Hamlet," or the "Now is the winter of our discontent" soliloquy that opens "Richard III." Perhaps that seemed necessary to make this type of specific, academic material accessible to the widest possible audience, but it also seems too obvious.
Still, "Anonymous" has its moments. In a bit of stunt casting that pays off beautifully, Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Joely Richardson, both play Queen Elizabeth I at different times, and both infuse the figure with vibrancy and quick wit. (The younger version of Edward, Jamie Campbell Bower, doesn't blend nearly so seamlessly; his features are too soft and pretty for the man he will become.) And it is sort of an amusing thought that the actual person whose name was William Shakespeare, an actor who takes credit for the work played by an unapologetically brash Rafe Spall, was a drunk, lascivious, illiterate lout.
Edward takes in these performances with a detached demeanor, but internally he's seething with conflict - with the thrill of seeing his words brought to life, as well as the frustration of not being able to bask in the adulation. Anyone who comes into contact with him knows how devastatingly verbal he can be, though, in both seduction and confrontation. It's a thrilling, surprising performance from Ifans, who's probably best known for comedy.
As the initial whiff of scandal eventually gives way to great, repetitive blubbering about the brilliance and significance of Shakespeare's works, "Anonymous" ultimately feels like much ado about nothing. The debate may keep scholars busy, but the actual authorship doesn't really matter. The words themselves do, and they've withstood four centuries; we quote them all the time and may not even realize it.
"Anonymous," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some violence and sexual content. Running time: 129 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.