It's hard not to on some level admire Anonymous,
the latest film directed by Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow).
After all, the usual Emmerich flick has him blowing up the world in as outlandish a fashion as possible while barely giving any consideration whatsoever to a silly little thing called plot.
Academics and Shakespeare devotees are likely to consider this entire production hogwash but, then again, how many Shakespeare Devotees are really going to find themselves in line to see a Roland Emmerich film?
After tackling the controversial Mayan calendar in 2012,
climate change in The Day After Tomorrow
and a certain hideous beast in a certain Godzilla
remake, Emmerich has now set his sights upon the controversy around that lowly, non-royalty connected Shakespeare and the fact that such a lowly figure couldn't possibly have written all those brilliant works.
The conspiracy theories around Shakespeare have always kind of bubbled underneath the literary surface, with various theorists surmising that Shakespeare couldn't have possibly written his acclaimed works but rather these theorists believe that either Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford or others must have been the true author.
penned by John Orloff (A Mighty Heart),
sides on the side of the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans). Shakespeare, on the other hand, was the son of an illiterate man with no known connection to royalty. Had we as a nation not spent the past few years fending off ludicrous birther theories masked as legitimate political issues, it would be rather impossible to even positively regard such an absurd stance against Shakespeare. Unfortunately, we HAVE spent the last few years fending off ludicrous birther theories so it doesn't seem completely outlandish that during a time when status meant everything it would be nearly impossible to accept that someone from such a humble beginning could have possibly written such masterful literary works.
To Emmerich's credit, and I mean this with all due respect, he actually doesn't ruin this film and I'd dare say that a good number of both Shakespeare and Emmerich's own fans will actually enjoy the film. Emmerich has cast his film extraordinarily well, with a largely British cast exuding the sense of royalty and crustiness required to sell the film convincingly.
The story is really quite simple, despite Emmerich's tendency to weave it out in unnecessary directions and to add layers upon layers that make little or no sense. Edward, it seems, is unwelcome in the court of Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave plays older Elizabeth while her real life daughter Joely Richardson plays her younger). Edward is a writing fiend, both as a coping skill and basically just for kicks. He's not above exposing royal corruption or working for political change such as when he writes about the undue influence of William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg). Due to his position in life, Edward can't possibly risk sending out his works in his own name so he convinces Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to be his, in essence, Milli Vanilli. Somehow, the cunning lout named Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is able to take credit for the works. While this would be enough of a story for most filmmakers, Emmerich and Orloff can't resist throwing in a few more characters such as Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) to add even more controversy and conflict to the film.
Anyone even remotely familiar with Shakespearean or literary history will be rather quickly able to debunk the vast majority of what Emmerich puts forth here, despite the zest with which he puts it forth. But, then again, does anyone really go to a Roland Emmerich film for a history lesson?
D.P. Anna Foerster lenses the film beautifully, capturing both the decadence and grittiness of the time period. Sebastian Krawinkel's production design is also top notch, while Lisy Christl's costume design far surpasses what anyone would ever expect from a Roland Emmerich film. While Anonymous
is far from a low-budget film, it's a modestly budgeted film by Emmerich's standards and yet he accomplishes quite a bit in creating a computer generated England even if his use of CGI is far tamer than we've ever seen in an Emmerich film.
The other strength, and it's a huge one, to be found in Anonymous
is that Emmerich's cast actually far exceeds the film. Rhys Ifans is a joy to be hold as he throws his entire physical being into playing Edward, while Rafe Spall brings Shakespeare so vividly to life that it might even wake up high school students who've long found the material far too stuffy. Vanessa Redgrave offers her usual strong performance, and it was absolute brilliance casting Joely Richardson as the younger Elizabeth I. The same consistency is not to be found with young Edward, played by Jamie Bower, who is certainly bold and beautiful but who appears little like Ifans and acts even less like him. David Thewlis and Edward Hogg are terrific as supporting players, while Sir Derek Jacobi has a nice appearance during a brief period when the film is actually set in contemporary time.
Even the word Shakespeare is likely to scare away a good portion of Emmerich's usual fan boys and girls, but that might be a shame because this film isn't really that far removed from every other Emmerich film despite its lack of splashes and crashes. Neither a stuffy Shakespearean tragedy destined to be seen come awards season nor the usual Emmerich tripe, Anonymous
is a ludicrous, chaotic story brought to life far better than one might expect by a gifted cast and production crew who manage to discover a speck of cinematic gold underneath all the dirt and grime.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic