1 November 2011


It's funny for a film about dubious authorship, that Anonymous so little resembles a film by disaster-movie hackmeister Roland Emmerich. It's almost suspicious, as if the act of watching the film invites you to wonder how it could possibly have come from Emmerich. Silly, isn't it? But not nearly as silly as this well-made academic pantomime, which adapts the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship into a bombastic period drama.

Anonymous is basically a hypothetical biopic of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as he seeks to have his plays performed by proxy. Noted playwright Ben Jonson refuses to become his pseudonym, but he leaves the Earl's manuscripts lying around to be claimed by an illiterate actor, Will Shakespeare. It is Edward's hope that the inflammatory satire in his works will allow him to influence the masses without being outwardly treasonous. In particular, he aims to unseat Queen Elizabeth's sinister advisers, William and Robert Cecil, with whom he has been in a pitched battle of wills for decades.

The film is bookended by Derek Jacobi, acting as the chorus in a Broadway theatre production with the same title as the film. Jacobi, usually an effusive Dickens fan, seems willing to stick the boot into Shakespeare for a paycheque on this film, and he sets the tone for the rest of the film. Following from the theory that the works credited to Shakespeare were not actually written by Shakespeare, Rafe Spall's boisterous version of the Bard figures less in the story than you might think. Indeed, Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff go to some lengths to make him little more than a cog in the grand scheme of an upper-class melodrama.

Emmerich seems to understand the life and times of the man we know as Shakespeare in the terms that one might understand a biopic of a musician. I've previously noted my disdain for musician biopics, but Emmerich's ever-present ADD filmmaking actually invests this film with those tropes, such as the significant title drop and the speculative scenes around key moments. Here, right, did you know that, like, Shakespeare wasn't really Shakespeare? And, like, he shagged Queen Elizabeth I, right? And, he invented crowd-surfing! And went into space! Well, perhaps Orloff's script doesn't go that far, but it might as well have.

As is typical for a production of this type, there's a strong cast, who actually do a fine job of bringing this bunkum to life. A powerful Rhys Ifans leads the charge as the calculating and charismatic Earl, who is manipulative and yet sensitive to the corruption of the age. It's easy to root for him, especially against the dastardly Cecils. David Thewlis is yet more manipulative as William, while Edward Hogg steals scenes left and right as the pathetic, hunchbacked figure of Robert. Kudos to the casting department too, for the obvious but no less clever coup of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson as the elder and younger versions of Elizabeth.

Elsewhere, the "sets" display all of Emmerich's usual propensity for CGI, in an admittedly stunning reconstruction of Elizabethan London, and the production design as a whole is just spectacular. By the measure of our diminished expectations of Roland Emmerich, this is probably his best film in years, even though it comes from an elitist theory, with little evidence, exaggerated with all of the director's fondness for romping historical daftness. At the same time, it chucks every conspiracy theory it has up its sleeve, right into the mix, and it's certainly engaging enough to coast along on its overblown absurdity.

Anonymous is pretty to look at, but as a film about theatre and literature, it made me want to shout "Oh no, he didn't" at the points where it most felt like the audience was meant to be in on the joke. Emmerich deserves some credit for making a historical drama accessible to a multiplex crowd, but it's sensationalised and silly as a result. There's more insight into Shakespeare in Gnomeo and Juliet than there is here. It's certainly nowhere near as bad as it sounds, and it holds enough intrigue, bolstered by its stunning troupe of players, to recommend it to anyone who was already interested in seeing it.

Anonymous is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
On the other hand, if a conflation between a flimsy theory, Blackadder and the Aristocrats joke sounds like your cup of tea, this is the must-see film of the year. If you've seen Anonymous, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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