Anonymous – 2011
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Jamie Campbell Bower
Written by John Orloff
I’ve never been a fan of Shakespeare. It was hoisted upon my unsuspecting and inexperienced childhood in such a way as to feel like work. In this case, I was to understand why a work of art was art, when I barely understood what the hell was written. So, after bouncing my eyes back and forth from the liner notes to the script and back again, I spent the better part of many weekends just pushing to get through it. The least conceivable thing to me was that any of my schoolmates ever understood any of this stuff without using the Cliff’s Notes. Somehow I not only survived to graduate with a rudimentary knowledge of Bill’s more famous works, I managed to learn to love reading and writing without obsessing over his works since. Which brings us to Anonymous.
So much has been made of the Elizabethan era of England’s history, one hardly knows where King Henry VIII stopped and Queen Elizabeth begins. All those Earls, Dukes, Advisers, Wards, Mistresses, Suitors and Bastards are in no short supply here. They are mixed in with sedition, deception, loyalty and diplomacy. The essence of the story, that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by the Earl of Oxford, is not a new idea. While not on par with the whole “Jesus never died and had babies with Mary Magdalene” theory, this one has more than its fair share of riled objectors. Not only could I care less what those old coots are objecting to, I am actually rather intrigued by the premise. I would rather like the idea that the genius of writing is a mirage. As a result, you will find no debate here as to the validity of the claims, nor the mixing of the dates and play releases to match the plot.
Instead, let’s discuss the performance of Rhys Ifans. First seen by me in the classic, Notting Hill, it’s been a long time shedding the image of the lovable goofball. His performance as Edward de Vere should just about take care of it. Daunting, cavalier and dangerous, he comes across as someone who could conceive of the ideas, both political and human, presented in the plays and sonnets. Never before seen as lead material type, Anonymous shows him in control throughout. He deserves to be a headliner.
As Queen Elizabeth both young and old, Joely Richardson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave are absolutely mesmerizing. They are so closely aligned in life, they quite literally inhabit the same space in this role. When one looks at the eyes of the older, they can see the same haunted memories as the younger.
David Thewlis is nearly unrecognizable and inventively slimy as William Cecil, lead adviser and sinister agent for the story. He and his son, Robert, held court over Elizabeth for many years. This precludes their sweeping all potential for scandal under the rug.
Oh what scandal we have. The plot twists are exquisite and unrelenting. So frequent are the time shifts, however, it becomes a burden in and of itself to keep track, thereby cutting the effectiveness. Fans of The Tudors, or either of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth movies, might want to give this a spin. If you are interested in watching and want to keep track, you better bring a pad and pen for notes. That this film’s director is by Emmerich is quite a suprise. Dramatic as everything is, the effects are as low-key as anything he’s done since The Patriot.
My favorite aspect to the film is getting a chance to see Bill Shakespeare as a mostly drunk louse of an actor. Rafe Spalls gives a tipsy performance that will push out all other images in your head. His effectiveness lends credence to the film’s pronouncements. The result, while not necessarily a source of enlightenment, is definitely a source of fun.
(***1/2 out of *****)