Dir. Roland Emmerich
(2011, PG-13, 130 min)

The phrase “directed by Roland Emmerich” is seldom encouraging. Even in his preferred genre – the effects-driven blockbuster – he falters: 2012 and 10,000 BC were like parodies of themselves that weren’t in on the joke, and the kindest thing I can say about Independence Day is that it hasn’t aged well. So the news that he was directing an Elizabethan costume drama sounded kind of like when Michael Bay tried to make a prestige epic and it turned out to be Pearl Harbor. Maybe it’s that lowering of expectations that made Anonymous so surprisingly satisfying, but give credit where it’s due: it’s certainly the best Emmerich film I’ve seen.

It’s not a great film. The director lacks subtlety, and that can be felt in a few preposterous plot developments and villains of cartoonish sniveling. Then again, the villains Emmerich is accustomed to are giant lizards, genocidal aliens, and the weather, so by that standard he shows remarkable restraint. He opens and closes the film with unnecessary bookends of Derek Jacobi on a modern Broadway stage telling a rapt audience that the story we’re about to hear will blow our minds. I could have done without those; it creates an air of self-importance.

The story speculates that William Shakespeare was not the writer of his plays and that it was in fact Edward, Earl of Oxford, all along, who in the midst of a complicated political struggle was forced to pass off his work as someone else’s; he’s played by Rhys Ifans in a measured performance that gives the film real emotional weight. Edward was once romantically involved with Queen Elizabeth I, played in different time periods by mother-and-daughter actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, who both do a good job of establishing the monarch’s passion, jealousy, and insecurity while maintaining her humanity. In one scene, the older Elizabeth, upon reading a racy poem, tells her adviser about a time when she was young and beautiful, and Redgrave, removed of her wig and royal regalia, imbues the scene with longing.

Production values are Emmerich’s strength, and he stages this story with predictably opulent sets and costumes, and cinematography by Anna Foerster that sets a sinister, foreboding tone. (He made the film for less than $30 million, a credit to his skill with spectacle.) The film includes performances of several of Shakespeare’s plays, which function as more than window dressing. Emmerich uses them to develop suspense and intrigue, pushing the boundaries of political speech, subtly – then explicitly – inciting its audiences to rebellion.

But in the end, does it really matter who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare? After half a millennium, the point seems more an academic concern than one of real import. Because it wasn’t Shakespeare who made Hamlet and Macbeth legendary but the other way around. How many of us can recite Shakespeare’s life story off the top of our heads? Yet how many more of us can quote passages from Romeo and Juliet? The play’s the thing, and the Bard by any other name … well, you get the picture.