Emmerich surprises with ‘Anonymous’

Posted by · 11:15 am · September 9th, 2011

I have to say, quite unexpectedly, I really liked Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous.” I think it’s his best work yet. Having busied himself with matters of the apocalypse for the better part of two decades in films like “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” it’s fair to say few would expect him to have something toned-down in him. So perhaps on one hand, lowered expectations play a hand here (despite the fact that, quite frankly, I very much enjoy Emmerich’s singular brand of entertainment).

Regardless, the film is an elaborate piece of work (from an engaging screenplay by John Orloff), dense but rewarding, smart but entertaining, and Emmerich pulls it off without a hitch. In fact, while the effort is surely stylized, Emmerich gets out of his own way here, leaving no real trace of his typical leanings — anonymous, you might call the work. That’s impressive for a guy who has made his living basically just destroying the world on celluloid.

Here the world is much more confined: Elizabethan England, London at the height of the English Renaissance and on the brink of the Age of Enlightenment. But the intrigue is nevertheless thick, as the story proposes the work of William Shakespeare to be both an elaborate game of politics and a simple human desire to express personal art: though none of it from the bard we know.

The film presents Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true author of Shakespeare’s works. It is a theory first put forth by J. Thomas Looney in the 1920 book “Shakespeare Identified” and it is the most prominent theory among those who believe “we’ve all been played” by history, as the film’s tagline asserts. Subscribers call themselves “Oxfordians,” and indeed, a handful are present in the film (including heralded actor Derek Jacobi, who wanted to be involved, yielding a small part in a late-addition framing device.) The Wikipedia entry on all of this is a great place to start.

But out of that idea, Orloff has spun a fascinating yarn, itself of near Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a complex interplay of relationships and motives, incest and politics that is ultimately about the power of the written word to change hearts and minds, the enduring nature of art and, above all, the integrity of an artist.

The complexities of the narrative (which never slows down to let you catch up with its Earls and Duchesses and various titles and figures of nobility) could leave some confused. Indeed, I’m already hearing this is the case for many, but I was able to let the film take me along even when I was feeling a bit behind the curve. Everything ultimately comes together in a very dramatic way, and right in the center of things is a fantastic performance worthy, I think, of awards attention.

Despite a few detours into commercial cinema here and there, actor Rhys Ifans has largely made his career in the world of independent cinema. Casting him in the lead role of Edward de Vere was frankly a bit brave on Emmerich’s part, but it’s safe to say after this and another Sony production — next year’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” — Ifans will be a lot more familiar to general audiences. Here he is nearly unrecognizable, giving a stunning performance, textured, electrifying, wonderfully emotive, fully present. Even though he’s an actor we know has talent, I was nevertheless quite impressed by what he did in this film.

Adding to her supporting actress hopes for “Coriolanus” is Vanessa Redgrave, given a little to work with as Queen Elizabeth I, but riding it for all it’s worth. She gets a handful of key scenes that remind you that the great performers make a role, however famous, their own.

I was also particularly delighted by Rafe Spall, who gets a comic relief role in the form of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is portrayed here as a nearly illiterate buffoon actor, opportunistic when he sees his chance, ruthlessly ambitious despite lacking the talent to achieve anything of note on his own.

Sebastian Armesto gets plenty to work with as poet and playwright Ben Johnson, de Vere’s only confidante in the truth, while David Thewlis is also worth noting as the antagonistic William Cecil of the Queen’s advisory. But Ifans is the story here, and he deserves an awards push.

The film, by the way, is absolutely gorgeous. I was talking with an American Cinematographer journalist at Telluride who noted that people will likely look back to “Anonymous” as the tipping point of what you can really do with digital in a next-level kind of way. It’s beautiful work, capturing equally extravagant and noteworthy costume and production design.

I don’t know if the complexity of the plot (and the length of the film, which admittedly steps too far, even if I was thoroughly enjoying myself) will hold the film back, but I think there’s a lot to work with for Academy types. It is, after all, a story of showmanship and art, very identifiable, and frankly more moving on that front than the slight “The Artist,” I found (no, seriously). All below-the-line elements deserve the campaign they’ll get, but I can only hope the film gets a fair shake across the board.

But, frankly, I expect to be somewhat alone in my championing here. Some will probably see it as an over-the-top display, “The Tudors” as done by Roland Emmerich, with many likely gunning for the director just because he’s Roland Emmerich. But I don’t really care. I very much liked what this film was saying deep down and connected with it as such.

“Anonymous” screens in Toronto today. We’ll see what the critical masses have to say soon enough.

[Photo: Columbia Pictures]

→ 22 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

22 responses so far

  • 1 9-09-2011 at 12:07 pm

    John G said...

    Critics will go after this one not only for Emmerich but also out of disregard for the Oxfordian theory.

  • 2 9-09-2011 at 12:10 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I imagine so. But they’d be missing the point. It’s not trying to sway opinion in that regard. It is, after all, drama.

  • 3 9-09-2011 at 1:09 pm

    Laura said...

    Long-time reader of this site, but generally I don’t comment. However, I am complelled to comment here because I am really glad to hear that this film is well done. If I’m being honest, I am an anti-stratfordian who believes that Will Shaksper the actor never wrote those plays, and I’m glad to finally see that theory presented in such a public way. Not that I am looking for a propaganda movie, it’s just that I’m so tired of never seeing this issue acknowledged, especially since there is a ton of evidence that proves Shaksper the actor didn’t write the plays (not the least of which is the fact that he was a young child still living in Stratford when the first two plays were performed for the Queen in the 1580s). Though I personally believe that it was actually Francis Bacon who wrote the plays (the evidence to support his authorship is much more concrete, in my opinion), again, I’m still glad to see this issue get the big-screen treatment. Thanks for the review, Kris!

  • 4 9-09-2011 at 1:47 pm

    Danny said...

    It’s a movie and as such, like Shakespeare in Love, doesn’t have to be factual.

    That said, I give as much credit to “Oxfordians” as I do to “Truthers” and “Birthers”. It’s crackpot paranoid conspiracy theory and sometimes it frankly drives me up the wall.

    Some Oxfordians have come across as distinctly classist, arguing that a man like Shakespeare, of non noble birth couldn’t have written these wonderful plays. Serious Shakespeare historians have made very good cases of how Shakespeare acquired the necessary education for what he achieved, and even show how his station in life and likely apprenticeship in the theater world made his ability to write the way he did more likely than if he had been born into nobility. Anyway, the Oxfordians have no more facts on their side than Birthers and Truthers, it is all self deluding speculation. Of Shakespeare and his authorship there is little historical record, it being so long ago, but there is plenty enough.

    So for me the tone of the movie will make a difference. If it creates an entertaining what if, an acknowledged engrossing alternative reality, fine, that could be really enjoyable.

    If it tries to sell me this story as historical truth, I’ll be massively turned off, no matter the other cinematic virtues.

  • 5 9-09-2011 at 2:15 pm

    SC said...

    Among the many flaws in the Oxfordian theory is that the Earl died in the middle of Shakespeare’s career and before ten of his plays are conventionally believed to have been performed (which has led to attempts to completely move the performance dates around to account for this). Same with the idea that it was actually Christopher Marlowe.

  • 6 9-09-2011 at 2:56 pm

    j said...

    I actually wrote an essay about this in high school. The theory, not the movie, obviously.

    So possibly in the race are Lovegood, and Sirius Black in a movie with Ollivander, Dobby, and Aberforth.

  • 7 9-09-2011 at 3:28 pm

    Graysmith said...

    This is like when Ang Lee signed on to do Hulk, only in reverse.

  • 8 9-09-2011 at 3:50 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    SC: They definitely deal with that. And there’s an interesting spin on Marlowe’s fate, too.

    In any case, like I said, it’s fantastic drama, to me.

  • 9 9-09-2011 at 4:12 pm

    Graysmith said...

    I am glad to hear good things about it though. I am sure most critics are going to go into this without an mindset because of Emmerich, and it’ll most likely suffer a great deal just because he’s the director and people won’t take him seriously.

  • 10 9-09-2011 at 6:32 pm

    Pablo (Col) said...

    Emmerich is not THAT bad of a director. 2012 was actually pretty decent for a disaster movie.
    Hope he gets nice reviews.

    However, i dont believe any major awards will be coming his way.

  • 11 9-09-2011 at 7:02 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Refreshingly, I’m seeing positive notices. I’ll have to collect a few in a separate post.

  • 12 9-09-2011 at 7:45 pm

    JJ1 said...

    It’s funny, aside from the Emmerich name (sad to say) … this film screams prestige. Any clip I’ve seen makes the film appear truly stellar (acting, dialogue, visuals).

    Critical response should be interesting, for sure.

  • 13 9-09-2011 at 8:31 pm

    Danny said...

    J, you made me smile.

    Maybe there is some conspiracy theory to be had about all those Harry Potter characters infiltrating other Oscar contender movies. To what nefarious end, I wonder?!


  • 14 9-10-2011 at 12:52 am

    Poet Ape said...

    Check out this book if you are interested in the proof of Vere’s authorship.

    The De Vere Code by Jonathan Bond

  • 15 9-10-2011 at 3:42 am

    Brian Mullin said...

    Sorry, people — this movie does a complete disservice to history and the legacy of the greatest writer in the world, by advancing an insane, elitist argument that no serious scholars believe…

    Read James Shapiro’s Contested Will for a thorough renunciation of the Anti-Stratfordian argument.

    However good this movie may or may not be, I am depressed at this kind of theory getting even more media attention…

  • 16 9-10-2011 at 9:45 am

    Gustavo said...

    How ironic. His last decent movie was, IMO, “The Patriot” – which, like “Anonymous”, was not a disaster/monster flick like the horrid ones he’s been making since.

  • 17 9-12-2011 at 6:35 pm

    Brett Buckalew said...

    Great to hear about Ifans! The last two performances of his I’ve seen, in “Greenberg” and “Pirate Radio,” also happened to be his two *best* performances IMO. So I was pretty confident “Anonymous” would continue the hot creative streak.

    Pablo (Col),
    I’m kind of with you on “2012.” Not the most sophisticated pleasure, but Emmerich’s cleanly shot and cut depiction of the chaos made it all the more exciting. (I wish he had done as well by the dogfights in “Independence Day,” which I found fairly disorienting.)

  • 18 9-16-2011 at 8:21 pm

    Stephen said...

    Well, it looks like the critics are responding positively. I’m glad to see it. It sort of cracks me up that anyone is upset (like Danny and Brian above) about the theory or the history being presented. It’s a MOVIE people! What on earth are you so afraid of??

    And I certainly don’t remember Amadeus or Shakespeare in Love generating such nastiness from the “scholars”, and both movies made mincemeat out of history. It makes me wonder if the mainstream “orthodox” camp doth protest too much…

  • 19 9-16-2011 at 8:28 pm

    Stephen said...

    The Guardian – “Roland Emmerich’s meticulously crafted and often well-acted exposé of the ‘real’ William Shakespeare is shocking only in that it is rather good,… Emmerich vividly portrays Elizabethan audiences and their visceral appreciation of the plays put before them.”

    Hollywood Reporter – “easily the director Roland Emmerich’s best film. Instead of blowing up the world or engaging in other sorts of mass destruction, he actually steers a coherent path through a complex bit of Tudor history while establishing a highly credible atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue. His British actors deliver their usual reliable performances while designers and digital environmentalist stunningly re-create Elizabethan London right down to the tiniest detail.”

  • 20 9-30-2011 at 8:44 am

    Paul said...

    To me, so far, the best movie of the year.

  • 21 10-28-2011 at 9:01 am

    John said...

    I’m glad there’s finally a good review. Have been looking forward to this film for awhile. I think Emmerich put a lot into it, and I’m looking forward to some history that won’t be found in books.