About something, or much ado about nothing?

Anyone who struggled through Shakespeare in high school might find some glee in picturing the Bard as a rude, uneducated, drunken lout who never actually penned his literary masterpieces. Well, that’s according to one theory put forth by the new film, “Anonymous,” and it’s supported by an avid group of so called “Anti-Stratfordians” who over the years have included Mark Twain, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud and British actor Sir Derek Jacobi (who performs a damning prologue to the film).

According to the naysayers, there are too many unexplained gaps and inconsistencies that give favor to reasonable doubt that William Shakespeare was the actual author of the works. Then again, it could just be snobbery to think the son of illiterate parents, one possessing merely an elementary-level education, could have such command of the English language.

Whatever the truth, the debate is handled with much gusto by director Roland Emmerich in “Anonymous.” Emmerich is better known for helming disaster films like “The Day after Tomorrow,” “Independence Day” and “2012,” so a historical who-wrote-it might seem incongruous, but he gives the Elizabethan age a blockbuster edge with meticulous CGI recreations and sweeping wide shots.

Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff (“Band of Brothers,” “A Mighty Heart”) have fashioned a tale with as many twists and turns as a good Shakespearean drama with plenty of lies, sex, betrayal and murder. They propose that it was Edward De Vere — the Earl of Oxford (played with great flamboyance by Rhys Ifans) — whose pen was mightier than the sword but could never reveal himself to the audiences at the Rose and Globe Theatres because of his searing hot topics of politics and royal foibles. Not to mention that it was considered indecent, if not sinful, for a nobleman to engage in such frivolous wordplay.

In this scenario Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is a second-rate bit player who revels in the glory of being the fake front man and extorts De Vere for the privilege. But this is no simple yarn, as the film’s convoluted plot lines delve into its own slant on 17th century politics with a speedy timeline flashing backward and forward, which makes it hard to keep up with who’s who and whether they are lovers or sons (and sometimes both).

Thankfully, it somehow all makes sense by the end and there are some rollicking good performances — particularly by Ifans, stretching out from his normal comedic roles, and David Thewlis as William Cecil, the malicious and conniving advisor to Queen Elizabeth. There is also a glorious interpretation of a more bawdy version of the Virgin Queen by Vanessa Redgrave, as well as some winking casting of her real-life daughter Joely Richardson as the younger Elizabeth. Whether “Anonymous” is really about something or merely much ado about nothing, it’s quite a fun ride.

KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at tulichk@aol.com.

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