Sunday, November 6, 2011

O for a Muse of Fire, Flood, and Alien Invasion: Roland Emmerich's Anonymous

Well known for destroying Los Angeles in Independence Day (1996), New York in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and practically the whole planet in 2012 (2009), Roland Emmerich attempts to destroy the widely held belief that William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to his authorship, taking on the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the plays.

Emmerich has a talent for the grandiose, but the most memorable aspects of Emmerich’s great disaster films are visual, and the overly talkie Anonymous becomes claustrophobic as it sets up the circumstances for de Vere’s production of his provocative plays under the name of William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a vain, illiterate, shameless fop who is more than willing to take a free ride on another man’s talent. Much more time is spent indoors as de Vere (Rhys Ifans) becomes embroiled in confusing court intrigue surrounding the succession of Queen Elizabeth I, played over the top by Vanessa Redgrave as a silly old woman still primping herself for her swains. Additional time is spent chronicling Elizabeth’s scandalous choices of bedfellows.

Panoramic CGI shots of Elizabethan London, like the one above, breathe life into the film, but these moments are few and far between. Instead, the plot follows conniving earls and the hunchbacked villainy of Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), supposedly the basis for Shakespeare’s hunchbacked characterization of Richard III. The film’s best scenes, however, take place in the theatre and depict what it must have been like to view the first performances of Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Emmerich overplays the rapture of the Elizabethan audience witnessing Shakespeare’s plays with shots of tear-filled eyes and female groundlings swooning over Romeo. Apparently, at the time, Shakespeare was just another very good playwright during a renaissance of great theater, and many of his speeches are merely utilitarian. But these scenes, staged with compelling authenticity, are full of rich atmosphere and energy, elements lacking from the rest of the film.

Rhys Ifans is all well and fine as the stern, grimly frustrated writer, de Vere. Ifans effectively expresses the sublime satisfaction felt by a writer when an audience responds positively to his work, and there's a nice moment when de Vere complains about the voices in his head that compel him to write. But you never see him do much writing. The film focuses on politics more than de Vere's writing of the plays he keeps in folders in his study. The film’s best performance comes from Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, who is hired by de Vere to produce the plays but to keep the true author’s identity a secret and who struggles with the burden of this secret as he sees literary masterpieces attributed to an illiterate buffoon.

But the film’s central premise, that de Vere wrote the plays, lacks dramatic impact. Anonymous does nothing to depict the passion and inspiration that created the plays. In the end, there is no awe attached to theory the film presents. This movie would have benefitted from the approach employed by National Treasure movies in which clue after surprising clue eventually leads to a shocking revelation that is sort of awesome even though it has no basis in truth. Instead, Anonymous gets bogged down in court chicanery. Indeed, National Treasure's tone of fanciful mystery would be quite suitable for a movie that presents a theory rejected by most scholars and for a director with a talent for visual bedazzlement on a grand scale. More suitably, Emmerich should have ended his historical fantasy with a massive storm surge inundating London Bridge.

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