Nearly four hundred years after William Shakespeare walked the earth, his work remains. Labelled one of the greatest writers of the English language, his 37 plays and 154 sonnets are still devoured and studied and performed the world over. Many of them may now read for modern audiences like lurid soap operas or whimsical fluff, but there is also a poeticism to his Elizabethan prose that cannot be denied. In a vast departure for director of sci-fi spectacle Roland Emmerich (2009's "2012
"), period drama "Anonymous" proposes a controversial, much-discussed, fervently-debated theory that puts into question the true authorship of Shakespeare's works. Conjecture though it can only be, the film reimagines that courtier Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the real writer, Shakespeare taking the credit because of de Vere's aristocracy and his alleged affair with Queen Elizabeth, to this day rumored to have been his birth mother. It all sounds very juicy and fascinating, which makes the film's staggering failure all the more a head-scratcher. "Anonymous" is muddled beyond belief, a prestigious-looking debacle of weakly ineffectual screenwriting by John Orloff (2007's "A Mighty Heart
"), inane casting that only serves to confuse its time-jumping narrative, and an alienating lack of human connection for characters who, almost to a fault, are physically interchangeable. You know you're in trouble when it takes well over an hour to figure out that the two on-screen figures you've been watching are actually playing the same character forty years apart.
The wraparound segment exhibits an attention-grabbing promise the intermediate two hours have none of. In it, a new play has opened on Broadway in New York, circa 2011. Called "Anonymous," it plunders the same subject matter as the film does. What is so special about this opening and closing is Derek Jacobi (2010's "The King's Speech
"), standing on a bare stage, delivering a monologue with the grace and command that only a brilliant veteran stage performer can. Had he continued to stand there and weave the tale with nothing but his own words, the film would have been visually spare but enrapturing all the same. The moment the England-set recreation takes over, the picture deflates like a blown-up balloon that hasn't been properly tied at the end.
From this moment on, Emmerich and Orloff whiz back and forth on the same timeline with such incoherent randomness it's as if they're anglingdisastrouslyfor jobs on another "Back to the Future" sequel. All of the treacherous dirty dealings, double-crosses, forbidden love affairs, and backwards 16th-century aristocratic traditions in the world are for naught when a film is cobbled so amateurishly together that one can barely follow what's going on, and why, and to whom. The characters are one-note sticks with faces, said faces looking almost without exception like the same one. With shaggy brown hair and virtually identical mustaches and beards, the men blend together. Only the blonde-haired Rhys Ifans (2010's "Greenberg
") and cherub-faced Jamie Campbell Bower (2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
") are decipherable, but even they are done in by a case of inappropriate casting and a juggling of time frames that give no signal whatsoever which one we're in at any given moment. Indeed, it isn't even clear that Ifans and Bower are playing the same personand the lead role of Edward de Vere, to bootuntil well into the lugubrious second half. If they are portraying de Vere forty years apart, as it is led to be believed, then why does the 42-year-old Ifans look 35 while supposedly playing 54, and why is the 22-year-old Bowers playing what one can only assume is a highly sexualized 14? A moment's thought to simple logistics like this crumble the foundation and bring unnecessary perplexity to the proceedings.
Such a shameless hodgepodge is the final cut of "Anonymous" that it proves to be more charademinus the funthan provocative "what-if?" The picture hasn't a thing to say about the importance or beauty of Shakespeare's (or is it Edward de Vere's?) work, while all the worthwhile evidence to the all-important authorship question is covered in Derek Jacobi's bookended scenesthe best thing about a film that recalls Uwe Boll by way of more handsome production values. The ensemble brings its all to substandard writing, but again, most of the acting troupe are hurt by the botched job around them. Sadly, this includes a regal, individually affecting Vanessa Redgrave (2010's "Letters to Juliet
") as the elderly version of Elizabeth I. Connecting to anyone is largely impossible since the viewer's care and energy are wasted on constantly trying to put together the shoddy round-up of competing subplots and characters. Their attempts are fruitless. Sitting down to watch "Anonymous" roughly equates to the stimulation of witnessing a snail sleep.