I went into Roland Emmerich‘s Anonymous (Sony, 10.28) with a chip on my shoulder. I’ve been suffering for 15 years from Emmerich’s end-of-the-world monster-disaster films (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), and if there was any way I could mess with Anonymous, I was ready and loaded for bear.

Why the hell was this Destroyer of Worlds making a film about Edward de Vere (who some believe to be the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare) anyway? You can’t make films for cretins and then just turn around and go for the swells.

And then I saw it and was myself turned around. Anonymous is Emmerich’s best film by a mile. It’s his only good film, really. It’s a fairly complicated, time-shifting Elizabethan period thing, and yet brilliantly written by John Orloff, impeccably visualized with the finest historical CG I’ve ever seen, and acted superbly up and down, first and foremost by Rys Ifans as the aforementioned de Vere.

It’s enjoyably smart but not overly dense or stuffy. It challenges but isn’t difficult to follow, and it basically just does it right.

Orloff’s screenplay isn’t just a debunking of the legend of William Shakespeare. It’s also, simply, a yarn well told. I was interested and engaged in every turn of the tale. [That’s Orloff in the above video clip, talking with KCET Screening Series host Pete Hammond the night before last at the Aero.]

Also top notch are Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, Joel Richardson as young Queen Elizabeth, David Thewlis as the malevolent William Cecil and Edward Hogg as his venal, hunchbacked son. Less engaging as Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson and Rafe Spall as the loutish and thoroughly asshole-ian William Shakespeare, a fellow who “never wrote a word” of decent prose, according to the Oxfordian theory.

Many who know something about William Shakespeare and Elizabethan-era history will despise Anonymous, of course. Holger Schott Syme, an English and Drama professor at University of Toronto Mississauga, wrote last month than Emmerich’s film is “stupid…a pompous, ignorant, ill-informed, and clumsy film. Worst, it’s a film that thinks it has an important story to tell. It doesn’t.”

There’s certainly no argument that on a level of pure craft, Anonymous is highly admirable.

If we’re talking nominations I’d definitely suggest Ifans for Best Supporting Actor, Orloff for his original screenplay, Anna Foerster‘s cinematogprahy, Sebastian T. Krawinkel for the production design, Simon-Julien Boucherie for the set decoration and Lisy Christl for the costume design.

I still don’t understand why Emmerich spent so many years shoveling expensive CGI crap into the laps of Joe and Jane Popcorn, making hundreds of millions for himself, and then suddenly turned a corner in his mid 50s and decided to go all classic-y and thoughtful and historical and whatnot. There’s something not right about this. Emmerich did nothing but degrade and befoul the House of the Movie Godz for years. He was doing the work of the devil, in a sense, and you don’t just get to throw that karma off and say, “Okay, I’m into something else now.” I respect him enormously for his latest effort, but I still don’t trust him.