Raised in a Puritan home that frowned upon theater, de Vere has had no choice but to pursue his passion for play writing over the years. “The voices come to me. . . . Only when I put them to parchment . . . am I at peace,” de Vere, now as a grown man and an earl, explains. He writes plays that he passes along to Johnson, who sees to it that the plays find an audience, albeit with no author’s name to them.

The young de Vere (Jamie Campbell Bower, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) was also the youthful lover of Elizabeth (played as a young woman by Joely Richardson), a queen who loves theater and who, despite her reputation as a virgin, loved lots of men. Her relationship with de Vere and others leads to controversy over who’s in line to take the throne next. The palace intrigue ensnares the earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), the earl of Essex (Sam Reid), and William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg), among others.

The characters keep piling up in Anonymous, so much so that we never get to know the protagonists as well as we’d like. An early sign of problems: The movie has barely begun before we get a “Five Years Earlier” flashback, to be followed shortly thereafter by a “Forty Years Earlier” stretch! De Vere looks quite different across the ages, while Richardson and Redgrave have the advantage of being real-life mother and daughter, making it easier for the audience to recognize Elizabeth in the film’s younger and older depictions of the queen. Figuring out who de Vere is across time, or who the myriad other players in this drama might be, is nigh on impossible. One wishes the players had all worn nametags.

Nicely filmed by Anna Foerster (10,000 B.C.), Anonymous is a pleasure to look at but a pain to keep up with. Perhaps those who enjoy speculation about the historical Shakespeare or who relish royal scandals will have fun piecing together this puzzling plot. Everyone else will be happy when this inconsequential story fades to a footnote in cinematic history. It’s more likely than not that viewers will end up feeling more certain about the conventional wisdom that Shakespeare wrote his plays than they will be persuaded by this film to embrace an alternative history.

Anonymous leaves us wondering, once again, why Hollywood has invested so much money and talent in a product at once so trifling yet hostile toward faith and tradition. If this is the best challenge they can muster, maybe the answer for future screenwriters and creative talent is to let the power of historical storytelling speak for itself. As fact-based films such as Of Gods and Men have shown this year, historical events sometimes can be the basis for stories more powerful than any fictional narrative.