A dramatisation of the conspiracy theories shedding doubt on Shakespeare’s authenticity, Anonymous postulates that the real author behind Shakespeare’s masterpieces was actually a nobleman and Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere (Ifans). Born during a time where being a playwright was considered a lowly profession, one not befitting his name or station in life, De Vere was forced to release them under the name of another man. He had intended for them to be released under the name of playwright Ben Jonson (Armesto) however something went wrong during the first performance of his first play and the barely literate actor Will Shakespeare (Spall) ended up taking the credit for it. As a result, all of De Vere’s subsequent plays came out under Shakespeare’s name with Jonson stewing in a mix of rage and jealousy acting as a messenger between them.

The film is told against the backdrop of Elizabethan England at a time when the queen was old, in bad health and refusing to name an heir to the throne. Her right-hand man William Cecil (Thewlis) tries to convince her that King James of Scotland would be the right man for the job whereas the Earl of Essex, a Tudor, backed by his best friend the Earl of Southampton, would prefer the throne for himself. De Vere is caught between the two. On the one hand Cecil is his father in law and on the other the Earl of Southampton is his illegitimate son.

Armesto’s voice teeters on the brink of Christian-Bale-as-Batman levels of absurdity. He has to screw up his whole face and stick out his chin to get the level of gruffness he’s aiming for and who knows why he even tries? Put nicely; he both looks and sounds ridiculous. We barely find out anything about Shakespeare except that he’s an opportunistic, cocky lout. Queen Elizabeth is played as a flighty teenager, acting brashly when it comes to affairs of the heart. She has to be restrained by Cecil who despite being her subordinate acts more like a father figure. Thankfully, the film does have one decent performance in Ifans’ De Vere who comes across as a man trapped due to his privilege. A man who has to resort to lies to be able to practice the one thing that gives him joy.

Naturally for a period piece, the costumes are beautiful and so are the sets except that they frequently, during the aerial shots at least, look very computer generated. The passage of time in the film is not successful. The film is filled with flashbacks that aren’t easy to keep track of and Bower who plays a young De Vere looks nothing like Ifans who plays his older counterpart. The film has a very muddled ‘culture not bombs’ message and tries to make the point that De Vere wrote the plays with the expressed intention of inciting a rebellion. Also, there’s a montage of the various plays that is supposed to signify Shakespeare’s success and the greatness of De Vere’s plays. The thing is, you can’t just hear little snatches of different plays and be expected to connect with the material and revel in the glory of the prose. Especially as this is the part that’s supposed to convince the viewer of the implausibility of someone as uneducated as Shakespeare coming up with a series of works as grand as this.

A two hour film that feels at least triple that length, Anonymous is slow, rambling and has some hilariously awful performances. In fact, had it not been for Ifans and the costumes, the film wouldn’t even be worth watching.