Friday, November 4, 2011

New Release Review: Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011)

The classic works of William Shakespeare – including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and Henry V – continue to be studied in classrooms on middle school and tertiary levels and in many English courses here in Australia, study of at least one Shakespeare is mandatory education. Theories have emerged over the years, which have questioned whether the works credited to William Shakespeare were actually written by him.

The Prince Tudor variant of the Oxfordian Theory of Shakespeare Authorship, a fringe theory proposed in 1920, contends that the works were actually written by an Elizabethan aristocrat, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (portrayed in the film by Rhys Ifans, and as a younger man by Jamie Campbell Bower). De Vere was a literary prodigy who was forced to renounce his rights to the acclaimed works, which were performed on stage through a front man (Shakespeare), due to the fact that his literary work was considered a dishonor to his family and his royal position.

Anonymous opens with Sir Derek Jacobi (an outspoken supporter of the Oxfordian Theory himself) rushing to address a crowded auditorium on the theory in question. As he recounts, we are transported back to Elizabethan England in the 1600’s, where we find a man, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) being questioned about the whereabouts of William Shakespeare’s manuscripts. The search has been ordered by Robert Cecil (Robert Hogg) and results in the Globe Theatre being torched and the precious manuscripts believed to be lost.

Jonson is whisked away for interrogation, setting up a series of events that lead viewers through a tale of political intrigue, literary rebellion and a battle for the succession to the throne adopted by Queen Elizabeth I. In addition we are also thrown back to two previous time periods, one being 5 years prior, where most of the action takes place, and the other 40 years prior, which briefly reveals the childhood of de Vere and his first play and performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream for Elizabeth. Essentially the film’s central character, Orloff continues to tell de Vere’s story, notably his affair with Elizabeth as a younger man and their illegitimate child. Further horrific truths about this affair - an alternate history to add further drama to this convoluted tale - are revealed later.

De Vere lived in the house of the Cecils, ruled over by his tyrannical father-in-law, William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his brother-in-law, Robert. Having been forced to give up writing and into a loveless marriage with William’s daughter, a now middle-aged de Vere, having recently witnessed the power that theatre has over the masses, decides to have his plays produced and performed. He enlists Jonson (a writer whose career never flourished the way he imagined and whose idolization, but evident jealousy, towards de Vere’s writing should have been given more time) to credit the plays with ‘Anonymous’. But, following the popularity of Henry V, and with the crowd chanting the writer to make him or herself known, an opportunistic, immature and 'illiterate' actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), jumps on stage and claims authorship.

Anonymous possesses all of Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day, 10, 000 B.C) typical blockbuster flair – and the elaborate set design and costumes, the impressive photography from Anna Foerster, and the clever use of visual effects manage to effectively recreate London in the Elizabethan era. The tech work is all of a high quality, and the film looks great. Being so used to Emmerich’s destruction of the Earth in most of his films, I found this to be surprisingly restrained and thoughtful.

It is the screenplay that is the problem, here. Not just tackling the theory that someone else inked the works credited to William Shakespeare, it delves into all sorts of political scandals, utilizing the works as a fuel for revolution. What many will find controversial and insulting is that the William Shakespeare portrayed here is actually an actor, and a drunken buffoon who gets carried away (and at one point by a roused crowd) by his fame. What really is the agenda here? To discredit the possibility that a common man is more infinitely famous than most of the Tudors household at the time? It really is best not to evaluate the historical accuracy here – because despite the prevalence of believers in an alternate theory – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is also interesting to note that Edward de Vere was believed to have died 10-15 years before most of Shakespeare’s most notable works were completed.

The theory itself is highly problematic, but Emmerich attempts to convince his audience that it is the truth because no other alternative is given. We are told who ‘Anonymous’ is quite early on (it is never actually a debated mystery) and the fact that someone else was taking credit for Edward de Vere’s work doesn’t really amount to any importance. The way the plays are utilized (as a means to ridicule the Cecils and spur an uprising) becomes more important than who is taking credit for the work. It becomes more and more incredible that Shakespeare is continually believed to have been the writer. All it would have taken is for someone to ask to see him write (as Ben Johnson did: “How bout an ‘I’? It’s just a line”) to reveal the lie.

With a blend of veterans, the always-excellent Rhys Ifans, and the fantastic Vanessa Redgrave (the standouts), and younger stars (Rafe Spall, Sebastian Armesto and Xavier Samuel), Emmerich draws some impressive performances. Rafe Spall, though he went a little bit far at times, played his part well I thought. As did Edward Hogg. An unrecognizable David Thewlis spent the entire film covered in an assortment of fake beards and old-man make-up, while Joely Richardson was laughably unconvincing as a young Elizabeth.

Anonymous is a conglomeration of fringe literary theories and the most sinister of Elizabethan gossip. Emmerich, in his attempts to be taken a little more seriously takes it to heart, playing fast-and-loose with history, dramatizing fabrications and shifting facts to create full-throttle melodrama. As entertainment it is intermittently so and is actually quite dark and brooding. There is almost no effective humour (though there are attempts) and the plot is difficult to follow to say the least. Crammed full of shifting time-lines, that are chopped together without any sense of order, Orloff’s screenplay seems to assume that we know who these figures are prior to viewing. We are thrown a heap of characters, and despite endless exposition to explain who they are, and how they all relate to one another; it still comes across as an implausible and confusing mess. It takes half the film to fully grasp who’s who. Perhaps that was just me being a bit slow on the uptake, or too bored at times to care – but when the film is balancing four time periods (including Jacobi’s at the beginning) it becomes a bit much.

The film's length is another setback. At 130 minutes, it does become an arduous slog, as we witness the revelations of scandal upon scandal, and several surprise ‘twists’ about the rightful heir to the throne. Emmerich even throws in a bloody battle sequence. I think all this is indicative of why it has been so poorly received. It really isn’t accessible at all and there were several walkouts in my session. Shakespeare (a wordsmith) and Emmerich (a destructionist) do not mix well and I suggest admirers of Shakespeare to look elsewhere. Though there are some admirable qualities, and the amount of work that went into this film is evident and commendable, the way Orloff’s scenario plays out is poorly intentioned and disappointing. It's hard to recommend this endeavour.

My Rating: ★★1/2 (C-)


  1. I'm not a fan of Emmerich's work though I do like Independence Day and The Patriot.

    Yet, whenever he tries to get into some kind of heavy-handed message film like 2012, that is when things go wrong and even something like this has me saying "are you serious?". Besides, this is coming from the guy who gave us the bloody awful 10,000 B.C..

  2. There was an interesting documentary about a decade ago called Much Ado About Something which posited that Shakespeare's plays were a collaboratin between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, who somehow survived assassination in 1593 and went into hiding on the continent. As unlikely as that sounds, it comes across more soberly and seriously than this thing seems to do.

  3. The film had its fair share of flaws but Emmerich really keeps this film moving with a story that is detailed with great mystery to it, and shows his love for Shakespeare’s writing very well. Let’s just hope he sticks away from blowing up the world the now. Good review.

  4. @ Steven - I too didn't mind Independence Day and The Patriot. This isn't his worst film...not by a long stretch, but it's an unbelievably hard film to enjoy. 10,000 B.C was so very bad!

    @ James - I had heard that. At the cinema where I saw this one of the staff (a friend of mine) told me about this. I said I thought that didn't sound like the one the film was depicting, but said it was interesting. Marlowe makes an appearance here for a while, but this theory is never considered, but I guess it has some plausibility.

    @ Dan - I didn't think there was that much mystery. It was way too convoluted to keep track of the possibility that there was a mystery. I thought the central mystery was going to be: Who wrote the works? That is revealed early on, and then there are twists that come out of nowhere. Including the introduction of another significant character about 10 minutes from the end. There were some things I liked (the tech work, and Orloff's knowledge of Shakespeare's works) but this was too bloated to be enjoyable. Thanks Dan.