In the case of Anonymous, I'd seen the trailer, which prompted this analysis back in May….
This is the definition of bittersweet if you're an English major. Hollywood is making a movie, titled "Anonymous," about the Shakespeare authorship question, one of the most fascinating mysteries in all of literature. Frankly, it's long overdue.
Problem #1: The film centers solely on the theory that Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) is the true author. Okay, well, that kind of gives short shrift to the other candidates (Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, Sir Francis Bacon and my personal favourite, Henry Neville), but hey, okay, for the sake of a 100-minute film, I can understand the need to streamline things.
Problem #2: This is the trailer. Uh, it looks pretty swordfighty for a movie about playwriting, but still, ok, a movie's got to sell tickets and whatnot. Fair enough.
Problem #3: It's directed by Roland Emmerich. OH FUCK. As in, the guy who directed The Patriot, 2012, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and a bunch of other shitty action movies. This is a bad, bad, bad sign.
Problem #4: The tagline is "We've all been played." Oh jesus christ.
In short, you can probably skip Anonymous unless you like stupidity. I pity the poor English teachers of the world, who will no doubt be faced with hundreds of essays from students citing this film as a definitive source. "My thesis is how Iago and Othello's relationship is a metaphor for jousting, which Edward de Vere was a champion at (as cited on Wikipedia), since we all know de Vere was really Shakespeare!"
Anyway, my expectations were pretty low, but Anonymous ended up being a thoroughly ludicrous but entertaining film. It's not any stretch to call this Emmerich's best movie, which is a little like noting that a broken clock is right twice a day, but still, I enjoyed it. Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans (in a dramatic role!) did their best to add gravitas to the theatrics of the plot and Rafe Spall playing Shakespeare as a straight-up bastard was pretty fun. Maybe I'm just a sucker for Elizabethean and/or "Shakespearean" costume dramas, but Anonymous gets a thumbs-up from this guy. Not a full thumb, but maybe the equivalent of three stars out of five. Geez, I would hate to lose two-fifths of my thumb.
The real issue with Anonymous is not the film itself, but more with the odd fact that Emmerich isn't treating his movie as just historical fiction, but rather as the truth. While Anonymous isn't even close to being as good as Back To The Future, imagine if Robert Zemeckis went around saying, "Oh yeah, time travel is real, and our film shows how it would happen." Or if Steven Spielberg claimed Jurassic Park was a literal blueprint for how to clone dinosaurs. We'd think they were nuts. Emmerich, meanwhile, says things like, "That's why everybody in the Stratfordian side is so pissed off because we've called them on their lies."
Did William Shakespeare actually write the plays attributed to him? It's at least possible he didn't --- there are certainly gaps that exist in the public record about Shakespeare and his work, more than you'd think there would be for a playwright of his stature, even one who lived 400 years ago. The authorship question is a fascinating one but it's at best just a sidebar in any study of Shakespeare's work since (let's be honest) the plays and poems were with at least 90% certainty written by William freakin' Shakespeare. I can buy that they may have been somewhat altered or re-edited from the versions that eventually appeared in the First Folio, but the overwhelming amount of evidence suggests the man from Stratford is indeed the man.
And, if Shakespeare didn't write the material, I can sure bet his name didn't end up on the plays thanks to some byzantine conspiracy involving the Royal Family as Anonymous suggests. I was all ready to praise Emmerich for making a good movie but man, the "gotcha, Shakespeare!" attitude just makes him look like a dope. I'll keep this in mind in 2313 when someone makes a movie about how Jeff Goldblum actually directed Independence Day but Emmerich got the credit due to…..MACHINATIONS! *swirls moustache*