On the surface, “Anonymous” appears to be a radical departure for director Roland Emmerich, who has made his bones destroying the world by way of natural disaster and alien invasion. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that “Anonymous” boasts many of the same qualities of his action-driven work. It’s bombastic, needlessly complex, and about as historically accurate as “2012” or “The Day After Tomorrow” are scientifically accurate (which is to say, not very). As a work of historical fiction, though, it’s quite entertaining, and Emmerich coaxes some remarkable performances from his cast. It’s all a bit ridiculous, yes, but one should never let facts get in the way of a good story.
Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) the Earl of Oxford and a ward of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), is raised by the Queen’s secretary William Cecil (David Thewlis). Edward receives an excellent education but the Cecils do not share his love for the arts, which they deem an affront to God. Edward marries William’s daughter Anne and regularly attends local theatrical productions, but he has a secret: he has written scores of plays and wishes to see them performed, but cannot publish the plays under his own name. He asks playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) if he will take credit for his work, but Ben is reluctant to do so, fearful that it will trump his own writing. Ben’s colleague, a loutish actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), however, is more than happy to play the part, though as Shakespeare’s plays grow more and more successful, jealousy and resentment begin to eat away at Ben’s pride.
You can see the dramatic potential here. The closeted genius poet who must hand over his best work while a lesser man basks in the glory, a competent writer who stays true to himself but plays second fiddle as a reward, and the illiterate fraud, all of whom form an uneasy alliance rife with betrayal and blackmail…and it’s only half of the movie. There is a whole other set of subplots about Edward’s loveless marriage, his affairs with Queen Elizabeth and a prostitute who looks just like her, and the diabolical power plays that both William Cecil and his son Robert (Edward Hogg, a dead ringer for Christopher Guest in “The Princess Bride”) execute in order to maintain their status. To connect all of these stories, the narrative shifts between Edward and Ben, and jumps back and forth among three different time periods. It’s not impossible to follow, but it does get challenging here and there.
Emmerich has always been his own worst enemy when it comes to character development, since he co-writes most of his movies, so it’s nice to see him direct someone else’s words and showcase his abilities as a director. Ifans and Redgrave turn in superb performances, and while Emmerich and writer John Orloff may have taken some liberties with the timeline, the art direction and set pieces are extraordinary. The problem is that the subject of Edward’s plays takes a back seat to the political shenanigans far too often, to the point where the film is more of a fringe theory biopic than the sordid theatrical drama it claims to be. Indeed, Shakespeare receives very little screen time, and when he does, he’s portrayed as unintelligent to the point of buffoonery. (The first time he takes public credit for a play, it is painfully obvious that he is incapable of creating a work so complex.) The political intrigue is gripping, mind you; it just feels like a bait and switch. It also ends with a soap opera twist that would make Susan Lucci blush.
Despite the mixed results, “Anonymous” proves that Emmerich is more than capable outside of the disaster genre. He just bit off more than he can chew, as is his tendency. If he could exercise a little restraint next time around, this could be the beginning of something special.(3 / 5)
This originally ran October 21, 2011 on Bullz-Eye.com.