Look, Anonymous is a movie about Shakespeare from the director of Independence Day—you already know what you're getting. It's a not-terrible version of what you already know you're getting: a fiery period piece that will inspire liberal use of the word "bodice-ripper" in reviews. And to its credit, it's not that bloated. Every minute the camera rests on the face of Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, starring as the Earl of Oxford/the "real" author of Shakespeare's works, is worth watching. Ifans is outfitted with very significant streaks of eye makeup. They make him look sadder, smarter, and, unintentionally, like a drag queen. De-lightful. Too bad it's unintentional. If Anonymous had cast the writer of Shakespeare's plays and poems as a transsexual—well, then we'd have a movie.
It's simply best not to think too hard about Anonymous, but the movie peskily keeps trying to be thoughtful. (The credits roll on a view of theater seats just like ours; see?!) It has two main themes: the identity of Shakespeare, and the separation of art and state. For context: Anonymous sides with a bunch of 20th-century Shakespeare fans known as the Oxfordians, who believe that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is the real author of William Shakespeare's writings—finding them too sophisticated, worldly, and all-out unfuckingbelievable to have sprung from the mind of history's most famous glove-maker's son. Most scholars completely dismiss this, but Anonymous presents it as pure truth, as though it were being kept from you by government agents. The attempt to make all ends meet turns the movie into babbling soap operism in the final twist. Plus: The great Elizabeth comes off as little more than a regular old monarch with a liking for poetry. (This means that both Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, as the older and younger queen, respectively, are wasted.)
Then again, there are Shakespeare's words and stories, scenes from when theater was a muddy business, viciousness and scheming brought to historic levels, swordfights in mazes, a hunchback and a bad old guy with a terrible cake-makeup job, and the inevitable whispering of juicy secrets during those switcheroo court dances. I'll take it over some kind of Matthew McConaughey situation anytime.