by Tim Ross
You could read the following review and believe it was penned by yours truly, but how would you know? How would my editor know the file he received was written by me and not my buddy or a co-worker? That’s essentially the premise posed in “Anonymous,” but the stakes are somewhat higher than whether this review is authentic.
“Anonymous” targets none other than the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare has often been called the greatest literary figure in history and controversies surrounding the veracity of his authorship have been around since his days at the Globe theatre. Such is the dramatic setting for a film meant to examine that controversy. But “Anonymous,” in the hands of director Roland Emmerich, goes off the rails rather quickly.
Emmerich is the director of films like “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012.” Virtually all his movies have focused on the end of all mankind and earth as we know it, so it’s no surprise he wouldn’t be content with a dramatic look at a debate over who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare.
“Anonymous” portrays Shakespeare, in a spirited performance by Rafe Spall, as a drunken, illiterate lout. He’s not even elevated to struggling writer status – he’s a complete loser who takes credit for work he couldn’t possibly do. That extreme view of the controversy made the rest of the film hard to swallow.
But even if you buy Shakespeare as a complete fraud, “Anonymous” has other problems. I’ll try to summarize.
The Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) starts life as a brilliant, but contentious, youth sent to live with nobleman William Cecil (David Thewlis). He has a long-running affair with the young Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) who eventually becomes Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave). Many of his youthful experiences become fodder for the plays he writes in secret because his patron, Cecil, forbids poetry.
Meanwhile, Cecil covets power and finds it as the patriarch of a family that serves as the kingdom’s main advisors. Illegitimate children are born, a fight with France brews, a faction of the kingdom breaks off and seeks power and we often jump back and forth between the past and present.
While this power grabbing is going on, frustrated writer Ben (Sebastian Armesto) is brought into the Earl of Oxford’s confidence and the Earl keeps pulling plays off of his shelf – the plays that made Shakespeare famous.
Confused yet? Me too. The film is so full of court intrigue and side plots that viewers need a “Guide to Elizabethan Court Life 101” to follow it.
Emmerich could have done well to simply follow the difficult, high-pressure lives of Elizabethan writers, their obsession with writing great poetry, finding fame and the competitive rivalries that could have led to the rumors of fraud that have plagued Shakespeare to this day. Instead, Emmerich had to raise the stakes to end-of-the-world status and we are left with a well acted, beautifully designed film that ties itself in knots.
If you’re a fan of costume dramas there’s something here for you, but there are better ways to spend a couple of hours. Reading a Shakespeare play could be one of them.
Grade: 2 out of 4
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence
and sexual content
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis
Studio: Columbia Pictures