Movie Review – Anonymous (2011)
by NIR SHALEV
There are technical and theoretical ways to explain what differentiates good films from bad films. The general filmmaking process begins with a script; then the project moves onto funding, casting, location scouting, set building, costumes, actors’ rehearsals, cinematography, etc. The final step is editing the film and then you have a complete film. Whether it’s good or bad depends on the rules that the filmmakers had followed. By simply following Filmmaking 101 rules, director Roland Emmerich’s films can be noted to be mostly failures because their screenplays are terrible, actors’ performances lack depth and focus, and their main area of focus is special effects which, let’s face it, simply look like special effects. But every filmmaker that’s made a career of mostly forgettable films has a few anomalies and in this case, Emmerich has two.
Mysteriously, both film are period pieces that are character centered, and whose characters are surrounded by excellent representations of the period in which they belong. The first good film is The Patriot (2000), a fictional Civil War tale that starred Mel Gibson and the second film is Anonymous. Both films start with good screenplays (rule of thumb: if you have a good screenplay you have a good movie), terrific costume designs, terrific, believable performances, great set designs and locations, and great special effects. But why does the filmmaker who’s mostly recognized for directing special effects-driven Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) even consider making a film that’s mostly centered on William Shakespeare? Because he’s actually a good director with a sensible head on his shoulders.
From a young age, Edward ve Vere wrote sonnets and plays. He was extremely talented and well-versed in the English language, so much that he was practically haunted by words and rhymes. One would say that it was his calling. At the age of 12, he became a ward of Queen Elizabeth I and he lived in the household of her secretary, William Cecil. He was the 17th Earl of Oxford. This film gets all of the facts correct but decides to immediately throw him into a fictitious, alternate universe in which he was a master storyteller and playwright.
In Anonymous, Rhys Ifans plays the Earl as an adult and Jamie Campbell Bower plays him as a teenager. The film travels back and forth in time between the past and the present, the present showing the Earl as having written plays that are performed on a stage; however, because his social status disallows him from associating himself with the arts he hires a man named Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to take the credit for his plays. At first, the plays are written by Anonymous, but when a performance of Henry V involves the audience to such a point that they are roused in anger against the French, the audience demands a man. An actor steps forth from behind the stage, play in hand, and bows to the audience. He says that his name is William Shakespeare and the audience loves him. Edward stares at Ben in disbelief but there’s not much that they can do.
The film’s focus isn’t entirely centered on Shakespeare, Edward, and Ben. It takes a more dramatic tone halfway through when focusing on Edward’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth, a close and sometimes erotic one, and also on her newly trusted secretary, Robert Cecil, son of William.
The time traveling that the film’s structure consists of becomes a form of punctuation that’s well structured. It’s broad and bold in its approach (it cuts to and from whenever it pleases and never with a warning) and makes terrific use of its actors. They skillfully play their characters at two different times in their lives.
The film is gorgeous to look at, as expected from an Emmerich film. The costumes are gorgeous, the sets are gorgeous, and the eagle-eye shots of 17th century cities (frozen harbors, castle grounds, packed marketplaces) are marvelous to behold. They take us right into the period in which the film exists and for once, the special effects don’t remove the audience from the overall sensation of being in another place and time. So I suppose that more filmmakers should utilize more CGI in order to render older times more a comfortable viewing for younger audience members, no?
Anonymous is a grand work of fiction and a terrific source of entertainment. Its story structure is solid, even though it plays like a melodrama most of the time. And the way in which the screenplay incorporate certain of the characters into Edward’s plays in ingenious: at one point, the hunchbacked Robert Cecil becomes a threat to Edward and to the Queen, so when Edward writes his play about Richard III he makes King Richard’s character into a hunchback. When the audience sees the connection between the hunchback and the king that murdered his entire family, the play doesn’t last more than a few minutes and a riot ensues. Like I said, it’s very clever.
There is no denying that the main plot of this film is 100% fictitious. I don’t say this because I’m a history nut who believes that Shakespeare is who we know him to be, which I’m not, but because it feels fictitious. And that makes for great storytelling and imagination. Like all those new versions of Jane Austen novels, rewritten to incorporate zombies, sea monsters, and vampires, Anonymous is fun and it’s well designed. This version of William Shakespeare’s credibility as a writer falls under the category of popular conspiracy theory, and the film’s claim that Shakespeare was mostly illiterate shows that it’s only a fun story and one that cannot be taken seriously. However, the historical backdrop of QEI and the Anglo-Spanish war is mostly accurate and the screenplay incorporates its key players into it rather well. Screenwriter John Orloff knows a bit about England’s history, or at least he’s studied enough to make it feel authentic.
This is a really great looking, feeling, and sounding film that boasts terrific performances, tells a great little tale of sexual intrigue and lots of backstabbing, and contains many sinister shadows (figuratively and physically). At its highest point, its antagonist even comes off as a person whose entire purpose in inflicting pain and suffering onto others makes sense because it comes off as misinterpreted. And that’s what this film has been: grossly misinterpreted. Those critics that dislike the film solely based on the fact that it believes wholeheartedly that the Bard was a sham need to reexamine their ideals of what great storytelling is.