Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Reel Review: ANONYMOUS

The premise of Roland Emmerich’s ANONYMOUS is that William Shakespeare did not write a single word of all that he is credited for. It is not a brand new theory; scholars and researchers have been going around in circles over the possibility for decades. Smartly, ANONYMOUS does not seek to offer clear and definitive answers to the debate, and instead elects to expand on just one of many conspiracy theories surrounding The Bard.

It is the late 1500’s, and Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) is nearing the end of her life without a named successor. Her former illegitimate lover Edward (Rhys Ifans), who is a gifted writer of plays and poems, decides to use his talents to influence the Queen to name a successor of his choosing. Edward seeks out Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), a struggling writer and theatre owner to produce his plays without ever mentioning his name. While Johnson struggles with the ethics of the situation, a young half-illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steps forward and takes the credit. Edward continues to write anonymously through endless political and royal turmoil, while Shakespeare benefits from the fame.

ANONYMOUS is less about Shakespeare and more about the thick and convoluted political maneuvering and scheming. In fact, Shakespeare is barely in the film. Emmerich focuses on the overall story loaded with illegitimate love affairs and backstabbing. That story is often confusing and convoluted, and makes for a frustrating watch. Emmerich throws a lot into the mix, including tons of flashbacks which serve to thicken the story and show the characters’ motivations. With so many storylines and so many different actors playing the same part, it is difficult, if not impossible to latch onto a single character, and root for them.

Emmerich has always had a great eye for visuals, and here he outdoes himself. The landscapes and sceneries are breathtaking, as is his cinematography. A lot of interesting choices are made, including a clever beginning and end; the film’s story is begun and ended in a stage production.

Acting is excellent throughout. Special credit needs to go to Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Queen Elizabeth in her elder years, and Joely Richardson, who plays Liz in her twenties. Both actresses keep the character consistent, and even produce echoes of Cate Blanchett’s iconic performance of the character.

Despite being heavy and complex on politics, ANONYMOUS still has a lot of Shakespeare elements to keep history and literary buffs happy. Seeing the famous stage productions come to life for the first time is a treat, and a lot of respect is given to the material. It is worth mentioning that many historical liberties have been taken, which makes the film feel like an alternate-universe type of yarn rather than a theoretical piece. By far, this is Emmerich’s most mature film (he must have been tempted to blow up the Sistine Chapel); he just tried too hard to make it complex.


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