PLOT: Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford , in addition to being a proud supporter of the Essex Rebellion, and a former lover of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), is secretly a playwright. His plays, highly satirical and critical of the monarchy, are scandalous, and, unwilling to expose himself, he hires a an alcoholic actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to claim the plays as his own.
REVIEW: What is Shakespeare was a fraud? That's the idea at the heart of Roland Emmerich's latest opus, ANONYMOUS. The Oxfordian theory presented in the film has been around for a while, and over the last decade or so has gained considerable traction among conspiracy theorists and the occasional Shakespearean scholar. While it's accuracy is highly questionable (we'll never know for sure), ANONYMOUS is a fun costume drama, and one of Emmerich's better films.
It's certainly a bold departure for the director, who's better known for his CGI driven disaster films like INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, and 2012. While I despised GODZILLA, and 10,000 BC, I usually find Emmerich's movies to be entertaining, if immediately disposable. Probably the only film of his I'd really consider good is his Mel Gibson-starrer, THE PATRIOT, which itself is not free of rather questionable historical revisionism. Still, it's rousing stuff, and ANONYMOUS follows in that tradition.
To be sure, ANONYMOUS has it's fair share of cheese. For one, Ifans, as de Vere, is supposed to be in his fifties, but looks to be about thirty-five throughout- although Ifans's has enough dramatic heft to give the character the gravitas it requires. The plotting is a bit of a mess, with de Vere's later years- including the Essex Rebellion, juxtaposed against his swashbuckling youth, where he's played by CAMELOT's Jamie Campbell-Bower (who doesn't even slightly resemble Ifans).
In the Bower section of the film, we follow de Vere as he's forced into a loveless marriage to the daughter of the Queen's puritanical minister, William Cecil (David Thewlis). Through his early plays and sonnets, he manages to seduces the Queen (in an inspired bit of casting, played by Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson)- before being banished for carrying on with her ladies-in-waiting.
The majority of the film focuses on the older de Vere, as he uses plays like RICHARD III, ROMEO & JULIET, and HAMLET to gain popular support for the Essex Rebellion (with their goal being to prevent Mary the queen of Scots son James from taking the throne). However, once de Vere's plays become more and more successful, he's stricken by a sense of pride in his work, and tortured by the fact that the public thinks they're coming from Shakespeare, who's played as a boozing illiterate in a fun performance by Spall.
ANONYMOUS would have probably been a failure had Emmerich not cast Ifans in the main role, with this being a rare star-turn for the Welshman, who's mostly know for his supporting parts in films like NOTTING HILL and GREENBERG. Recently, he’s been making some headway as a lead (his film MR. NICE is worth checking out), and while this isn't exactly Peter O'Toole in THE LION IN WINTER territory, it's a fun, charismatic turn.
Speaking of that film, its obvious that Emmerich is trying hard to make his own variation on those late-sixties costume pictures, and for the most part he succeeds. Of course, being an Emmerich film, there’s also a lot of action (including a swashbuckling sword duel or two) and some beautiful production design, which recreates the Shakespearean era with CGI (the film was also shot digitally).
However, ANONYMOUS is not free of a little of the trademark Emmerich goofiness, with an incestuous subplot being a particularly silly bit of lunacy that will like elicit more snickers from the audience than gasps of astonishment. Nevertheless, I enjoyed ANONYMOUS, even though it probably owes more to something like THE TUDORS than A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. It’s a fun way to spend two hours, and will actually makes an interesting companion piece to another TIFF selection, CORIOLANUS.