Director Roland Emmerich changes gear from the blockbusting action of Independence Day and Godzilla to fashion a tale of Elizabethan intrigue that suggests it was Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) who penned the greatest works in English literature and merely employed an attention-seeking actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to take the credit. Here the explosions are in the court scandals and illicit trysts, in the bursting bodices, the sword-fights, the evil advisers and the battle for the throne.
Let's get one thing straight: Anonymous isn't a biopic. Not really. Shakespeare himself, played as an illiterate half-wit by the dependably comic Rafe Spall, and his alter-ego the Earl of Oxford, a counter-cast Rhys Ifans, are so gloriously hammed up that no one in their right mind could look on this as a truly historical film.
That's not to say many won't try. Critics are up in arms over its rampant disregard for the "truth", and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has called it an attempt to "rewrite English culture and history".
Seriously? This is a film as explosive as the action films for which director Roland Emmerich is better known, only here the explosions are in the court scandals and illicit trysts, in the bursting bodices, the sword-fights, the evil advisors and the battle for the throne. Just when you think they've milked as many absurd conspiracy theories out of the era as they possibly can, along comes another one.
Ben Johnson (at this time part of a troupe of struggling playwrights) is summoned to the house of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, where he is invited to put his name to several plays the Earl has written.
For this he will be handsomely paid. Johnson, being a worthy fellow, isn't very comfortable with the arrangement, confides in gadabout actor Will Shakespeare, who happily does it for him and goes on to become the Bard we all know and love today.
Forget for a moment that some people having real debates ahout such things. The reasons behind this particular sequence of events are myriad and complex: love, politics, art revenge. Playwrighting isn't a suitable pastime for an Earl, but then this one's already been kicked out of court for sleeping with the Queen. He's also "possessed" by his artistic impulses, has an evil father-in-law and some kind of thwarted military ambition.
The plot is kind of knotty - but who cares? The film moves along at a fast and furious pace, beautifully recreating ye old London and its theatre-hungry post-Puritan England audiences in a fiction that is as entertaining as it is absurd.
It is also packed with British acting talent chewing up the scenery. Mother-and-daughter team Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson appear as the young and old Queen Elizabeth, and David Thewlis is splendid as the wizened old William Cecil. Best of all is a slightly bizarre but beautiful turn from that most Shakespearean of actors Derek Jacobi as a sort of modern-day narrator of the tale.
It's all very loud, very silly and hugely enjoyable. No doubt designed to capitalize on the current interest in all things English, post-Royal wedding and The Kings Speech, it feels like what 17th century England might have been like if it had been inhabited by Americans. And written by Philippa Gregory.
There's something curiously personal about the objections to the suggestion that Shakespeare might not have been who we thought he was, as if the identity of Britain herself were at stake. Because that's how we feel about the Bard: he's sort of the best thing we've ever done.
Bu that's precisely why he is perfect fodder for a highly improbable Hollywood yard about mistaken identity, accurate or not. Because his plays are so exciting even now that we can't help but hope the landscape in which they were written were just as saucy.
Shakespeare himself would probably love it. He did write Twelfth Night, for goodness sake.