** (out of 5)
October 28, 2011
Rhys Ifans as EARL OF OXFORD
Vanessa Redgrave as QUEEN ELIZABETH I
Sebastian Armesto as BEN JONSON
Rafe Spall as WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
David Thewlis as WILLIAM CECIL
Edward Hogg as ROBERT CECIL
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
There are some directors in Hollywood that are brilliant and artistic, ones that make movies by the beat of their own drum and mostly turn out quality products. Some of these directors include the late Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson.
Then there’s another type of director… the hack. These directors tend to make fast food cinema with little or no substance but plenty of flash. Some examples of these directors include Michael Bay, Renny Harlin, McG, Brett Ratner and Roland Emmerich.
This is not to say that hack directors can’t be thoroughly enjoyable to watch. In fact, many of these hacks fall in the realm of guilty pleasure for me. I’ll watch the hell out of any movie by Renny Harlin or Brett Ratner and usually will enjoy it, in spite of the fact I know it’s a steaming pile of crap. Roland Emmerich is another one of those guilty pleasures. Whether he’s showing us an alien invasion in “Independence Day” or the destruction of the world in “The Day After Tomorrow” or “2012,” I really dig his films.
But sometimes filmmakers shouldn’t try to grow. Sometimes their best work is their hack work. “Anonymous” proves this. Emmerich is trying to stretch here, but without the special effects spectacle of destruction, he stretches to the point of his own incompetence.
“Anonymous” tells a story I’ve heard discussed before, a contemplation on whether William Shakespeare did not, in fact, write anything. The film starts with a stage production featuring noted Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi monologuing about this possibility. Then we flash back 500 years to the eve of Shakespeare’s renaissance. The story follows a young playwright who sees the Earl of Oxford offer his plays to a bumbling actor, passed off as his own. These events have massive repercussions to the politics of the day.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I really don’t know a lot of the history of that time, nor am I familiar with the politics surrounding Queen Elizabeth I. And I do not think I’m in a minority of potential audience members here. So without this knowledge beyond who is queen, I got lost fast.
Part of the reason for this is that the film jumps around, flashbacking inside flashbacks. Not only does it start with a pseudo flashback to the 1500s from Jacobi’s stage monologue, it continues to flash back another five years, then another 40 in the first act alone. Characters are introduced, often without names, and when we meet up with them in their own past, the actors look nothing like their older selves. By the time I was half-way through the film, I felt I needed a crib sheet to keep everything straight.
Were Emmerich trying to tell a story of playwrights and how they might have passed around pen names, this may have been easier to follow. But like he does in most of his movies, he bites off more than he can chew. In addition to the writer drama, he’s trying to give history lessons about uprisings and revolts, tell a tender love story with the not-so-virgin queen, show the political power struggle behind Elizabeth’s throne and present William Shakespeare as such a blithering idiot that it’s a wonder he manages to drop his trousers before relieving himself.
Convoluted at worst and confusing at best, “Anonymous” looks pretty and is for the most part competently acted, but it’s not Shakespeare. Not by a mile.
I’m not sure if the film would have been improved by blowing a few things up, but at least it would have felt more like a Roland Emmerich film if that had happened. And I probably would have enjoyed it more.