Ambitious best describes Roland Emmerich’s intriguing Anonymous.
It’s not ambitious in the sense that we’ve come to expect from Emmerich, the purveyor of popcorn fare such as Independence Day and Stargate.
Emmerich is the type of director who revels in the commercial aspect of movies and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a bit jarring and unexpected to see his name attached to a film associated with William Shakepeare – even moreso to see that he passes on blowing stuff up in order to film something that strives to be intelligent, compelling and entertaining and on many occasions pulls it off.
However, in Anonymous Emmerich, who directs from a script by John Orloff, takes up the issue of Shakespeare and whether The Bard actually wrote the brilliant works that have evolved into the basis of modern literature and storytelling. Consider Shakespeare the original screenwriter.
Many of those who question Shakespeare’s authorship are known as Oxfordians because they believe a nobleman, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays giving up ownership because England’s upper crust viewed plays as a low form of entertainment.
That provides the basis for Anonymous, a tangled web of intrigue, humor, starcrossed love, secret identities and tragedy.
Rhys Infans stars as de Vere, a man trapped in a loveless, cold marriage stifled by his father-in-law’s, William Cecil (David Thewlis) puritanical beliefs. Cecil holds power because he is the trusted adviser of Queen Elizabeth I (played at different periods in the film by Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave). He’s a master manipulator and has secured de Vere’s obedience because of those skills.
It’s because of that, de Vere cannot openly write for entertainment purposes. Until meeting playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), whom he blackmails into assuming ownership of his work, de Vere fiddles in anonymity.
However, even then the plan goes wrong when Johnson can’t bring himself to claim what he views as inferior work, but one of his actors, a roguish character named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) has little problem doing so and reaping the rewards.
While that storyline represents the heart of Anonymous, it’s not the only tale in play. At any given moment there are several at work with one being less compelling than others. At times there’s too much going on. That’s where it’s easy to praise Emmerich for the ambition, but chide him for not being judicious with the editor’s knife.
Orloff has given him a vivid, intelligent story that he films in luscious tones, bring out the Elizabethean Age’s grimy, gritty beauty and he finds the high point in every story.
But that script blends classic elements of Shakespeare’s narratives to create a movie that is at times delightful and other time too convoluted for its own good.
The performances mitigate that shortcoming. With a stellar cast many actors standout, but none more than Ifans and Redgrave, who both bring a touch of sorrow to what ultimately prove to be tragic roles.
Thewlis plays slippery than a snake as Cecil and Edward Hogg equally so as his son Robert. For sheer comic pleasure, Spall as Shakespeare leaves a lasting impression, turning in a performance filled with verve and joy.
Anonymous held the potential to be every bit the equal of Shakespeare in Love, the Academy Award winning-best picture, but falls short. But it’s a film that stands on its own regardless and is just good enough to make it worth a trip to the movie theater.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Rhys Infans, Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis
Rated: PG-13 (some violence and sexual content)
Running time: 130 minutes
George’s rating: 3.5-out-of-5 stars
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com