Given the piling on of conspiracies, murderous family matters, bastard sons, etc., this movie might have been called Much Ado About Nothing. But that would plagiarize the work of a particularly famous Bard. Then again, it is questionable authorship that is at the heart of this 130-minute piece, its excessive length causing us to wonder if, in an attempt to echo the Shakespearean theatrical model, the filmmakers felt obligated to give us five acts. A film in five acts—let’s see what the studio’s publicity department can do with that.
As it stands, after the faltering reactions from pre-release previews, Sony acted quickly and changed Anonymous‘ planned domestic widespread release to a small debut in merely 250 theaters. More’s the pity: One would think that a film positing an unconventional theory about whose ink-stained fingers truly put quill to parchment under the name of William Shakespeare, resulting in a dizzying output of 37 plays and 154 sonnets, would prove entertaining. Was it Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), possibly besmirching his name and reputation if he admitted to such frivolous and/or seditious doings? How about Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), considered the era’s lesser playwright and poet? We can’t disregard Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle), stabbed to death (as usual) by a mysterious assailant. And it certainly couldn’t be that ham actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), son of an illiterate tradesman, liberally quaffing steins of ale both onstage and off.
So what’s the problem with this Roland Emmerich-directed movie? Isn’t the fact that Emmerich has changed genres, trading in the disaster film for the costume drama, intriguing enough? Prithee, friends, let us think on this again. For all his catastrophic extravaganzas – including 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, 10,000 BC – excess is best. Emmerich never settles for one earthquake/tsunami/mutant lizard/woolly mammoth when legions will do. Hence, Anonymous teems with countless counts, gaggles of bastard children from the not-so-Virgin Queen’s womb, four different time periods, multiple arrests, plots aplenty, and some unnecessary trick shot segues from a present-day stage to the back alleys of the good Queen’s England. And heavens, let’s not forget Scotland.
But buried underneath all those Elizabethan farthingales and ruffs are some rare delights. Such as the catty klatch of Shakespeare’s contemporaries — led by Gravelle’s deliciously-sneering Marlowe — who exchange barbs among themselves as they sit among the rapt audience, trying to stifle their envy of the extraordinary plays unfolding on the stage below. Or Vanessa Redgrave’s aged, white-faced Queen Elizabeth, sinking into a girlish dementia in an almost obscene attempt to deny her own final exit. And a special bow to Spall’s Will Shakespeare, the actor and his character doubly stealing the show. He’s great fun as the enraged hambone who, having to pose as a hardworking playwright, would supposedly have no time to take on leading roles. (“But I should play Romeo!”) Will comes around once he realizes that the last and best curtain call belongs to him alone.
Though Ifans turns in an impressive performance as the agonized protagonist, both his character and David Thewlis’ manipulative William Cecil are hampered with scene upon stultifying scene of overcooked verbiage. Quoting screenwriter John Orloff, “I had a little story about art and jealousy … and with that suggestion, Roland [Emmerich] wanted to propel the script into a whole new dimension of dramatic possibility.”
Ay, Mr. Emmerich, there’s the rub. A little story about art and jealously would have been just the ticket. But turning it into Bard-zilla? ‘Tis sad but true, O Emmerich: At the end of the day after tomorrow, thou hast created one more disaster.
Rating on a scale of 5 shrewder Tudors: 2
Release date: October 28, 2011
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Screenplay by: John Orloff
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Trystan Gravelle, Derek Jacobi
Running Time: 130 minutes