Roland Emmerich has based his career around pure spectacle – his résumé includes the likes of Independence DayGodzillaThe Day After Tomorrow and 2012, all of which provide fun but dramatically weak visions of large-scale mayhem. 2011’s Anonymous is a radical departure from the director’s comfort zone, as it represents Emmerich’s first attempt at a drama-focused human story. Scripted by John Orloff, the film is a bold rendering of a controversial conspiracy theory which asserts that Shakespeare was a fraud. Rather than a Dan Brown-esque mystery involving present-day characters following clues and scrutinising the theory, Anonymous is a historical period drama exploring the tumultuous royal and political climate during the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. While the film is brought down by an array of issues, its audacious nature and the lack of brainless Emmerich-style spectacle is to be admired.

Set centuries ago in Elizabethan England, struggling playwright Ben Jonson (Armesto) encounters political resistance as he seeks to make his mark on the local theatre scene. Meanwhile, nobleman Edward de Vere (Ifans) writes plays in secret but cannot have his name attached to them in fear of damage to his reputation. Longing to hear his words be performed, de Vere chooses Ben to be his front man, asking Jonson to stage his plays and take credit for the writing. After a performance of de Vere’s Henry V which beguiles spectators, buffoonish actor William Shakespeare (Spall) decides to steal the credit from Jonson without de Vere’s blessing. Left with little choice, de Vere continues to deliver his plays and sonnets to Shakespeare, who soon becomes rich and famous as a result.

Anonymous‘ biggest problem is its messy, jumbled structure. Emmerich jumps around the timeline too much without the aid of title cards, making the narrative difficult to follow. For instance, after initially transitioning into the Elizabethan-era story, the film heads back five years (via the lone title card), and subsequently leaps back even further at certain points. All of the chaotic back and forth becomes so bewildering that by the time we return to the opening sequence, it’s hard to discern where we are in the narrative. Exacerbating this problem is the film’s studious lack of humanity and substance. Emmerich’s shortcomings with drama are pinpointed with laser precision here as pretty much the entire film is drama. Consequently, pacing is uneven. Anonymous sparkles the most during its opening and closing scenes, when actor Derek Jacobi stands on a bare stage to deliver monologues with engaging command and grace. Perhaps the entire film should have been framed around Jacobi’s words, with the story halting to allow the performer to present evidence or explain the mechanics of certain vague plot machinations. It probably would’ve seemed like a lazy device, yet the film would’ve at least been enrapturing and easy to follow.

Dramatic issues aside, Anonymous is a tremendous success in terms of summoning a feel for time and place. Emmerich immaculately recreated the period on a scant $30 million budget, with Oscar-nominated costume design and lavish sets (aided by a bit of CGI) elevating the sense of authenticity. Anonymous lacks the glossy romanticism of something like Shakespeare in Love – this is a grimy, dark, disgusting vision of Elizabethan England complete with grotty interiors, mud-splattered streets and yellow teeth. But Emmerich was restricted by the PG-13 rating, which forbade him from being more graphic or explicit (the flick is especially tame in terms of shootings and stabbings). Furthermore, the film tries to hammer home its theories to such an extent that Shakespeare is depicted as a talentless, illiterate, stupid buffoon. It’s cheap characterisation; certainly audacious, but the depiction feels hyperbolic.

Leading the cast is an outstanding Rhys Ifans, who’s never anything less than convincing as Edward de Vere. However, trouble arises due to the casting of Jamie Campbell Bower as Edward in his younger years. There’s supposed to be forty years separating the two versions of the role, yet the 42-year-old Ifans looks in his mid-30s while the 22-year-old Bower looks no younger than 20. It’s a peculiar casting decision, and some viewers may not even realise that these two are playing the same character (now that’s a red flag…). On a more positive note, Vanessa Redgrave bursts with gravitas as Queen Elizabeth – the actress truly threw herself into the role, and her performance is outstanding. The one who stands out the most, though, is Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson. Armesto looks perpetually focused, and every line seems completely authentic. It’s a marvellous performance, and he lights up the film whenever he’s on-screen.

Cynical historians will probably suffer coronaries as they clamber to debunk screenwriter Orloff’s theories about William Shakespeare, but Anonymous is fascinating if you’re open-minded enough… And if you’re lenient enough towards the picture’s gaping problems.