The greatest conspiracy-theory fiction doesn’t just spout far-fetched fantasies but is frenzied and feverish, plunging the audience into giddy paranoia.
We accept, on some level, that it’s all a bunch of bunk, but we embrace our deep-rooted fears that hidden puppeteers pull the strings of our lives.
Then there’s a movie like “Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich’s Elizabethan-set potboiler, which tosses off lurid conspiracy theories about Shakespeare and the queen yet never connects them on any primal level. The movie is measured when it needs to be unhinged, tasteful when it should be trashy. It believes so doggedly in its conspiracies it forgets to have much fun.
The film opens in the present day, where an unnamed actor (Derek Jacobi) takes to a Broadway stage and begins a monologue about Shakespeare, specifically, the questionable authorship of his plays.
Before long, we are launched back 400-plus years in time, to London near the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. The William Shakespeare we meet is a bit of a boob, quite possibly illiterate.
The central mystery is not the question of who might have actually authored Shakespeare’s plays if Shakespeare did not. The movie endorses a long-postulated (and widely debunked) theory that the Bard was actually a frontman for the Earl of Oxford, whose political duties prevented him from presenting the works under his own name. Instead, “Anonymous” comes to center on another, juicier set of theories, about whether or not the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I actually had a number of illegitimate children and whether one of them might have had a rightful claim to the throne after her death.
All of this is even more ludicrous than it sounds. Had Emmerich taken a cue from his actors, all of whom know not to take any of this too seriously, he might have given this the lift it needed. Instead, it feels dry and square, like a ham sandwich with not nearly enough cheese.
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, Ben Jonson, Derek Jacobi
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, violence
Running time: 130 minutes