MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Period Drama/ Stars: Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Paolo De Vita, Trystan Gravelle, Robert Emms, Tony Way, Alex Hassell, Mark Rylance, John Keogh, Helen Baxendale, Amy Kwolek, Vicky Krieps, Derek Jacobi/Runtime: 130 minutes
I think it is safe to say that the true author of the world-famous plays that are often claimed to be the brainchild of one William Shakespeare to say nothing of the ominous, plotting, and even literally keeping it in the family (if you know what I mean) political intrigue in England during the reign of Elizabeth I really does seem like the narrative spine for a slice of cinematic pie being given to us courtesy of Kenneth Branagh. A claim which makes sense when taking into account his work done with Frankenstein in 1994, Thor in 2011, and of course his iconic and masterclass Shakespeare adaptations including Much Ado About Nothing in 1993 and Hamlet from 1996 respectively. Yet, in a curious move, the 2011 slice of cinematic pie dealing with Shakespeare that is Anonymous is one that instead comes to us courtesy of one Roland Emmerich. As in the Roland Emmerich who gave us Stargate in 1994, Independence Day in 1996, The Day After Tomorrow in 2004, and 2012 in 2009 respectively. Suffice it to say that whilst these movies are the kind which rely on being as big and enjoyably cheesy popcorn films as possible, they don’t exactly scream that the film helmer behind them has the pedigree to transition over to Period Drama. That is unless this is secretly planting the seeds for a movie where aliens attack Victorian-era London. Be that as it may be, Anonymous does at least present us with the intriguing question of did the guy called Shakespeare actually put to paper what have been seen ever since their conception some of the most iconic literary works in the entirety of the English language? Or is it possible that there was someone else who put these words to paper and for reasons of an unknown nature decided to use a pseudonym rather than their real name? This is the question therefore that is being asked of you should you decide to sit down and watch this distinct slice of cinematic pie whilst also giving you some things to consider. Things that have been hotly debated, but also at the same time are things that are very intriguing that might one day give us a better look at one of the most riveting mysteries that is the backdrop not only for a distinct era in world history, but just as crucially a narrative unlike any we have ever heard before.
The plot is as follows: Anonymous starts its riveting tale as we are taken back in time to England during the era of the first Queen Elizabeth. Indeed in this landscape, we see that the iconic Globe Theatre has been transformed into a burnt husk, and a writer of plays by the name of Benjamin Johnson has been detained due to the belief that he has in his possession literary work that was supposedly put to paper by none other than the 17th Earl of Oxford. Of course Johnson claims complete and utter ignorance to all of this with the exception of admitting that he is a playwright. Going further back in time though, it is shown to us that the Earl of Oxford did in fact request Johnson put his name rather than the Earl’s on his written pursuits. This is due mostly to the fact that he wishes to keep his public image as a nobleman in nothing but the highest regard especially when his father-in-law, and political opposition, is the kind of views these distinct literary works as no less than an utter atrocity. Yet although Johnson agrees to help the Earl and the plays are amazingly received, we also see that it isn’t long before a little known man by the name of William Shakespeare decides he wants the credit for himself. Whilst all of this is going on, we see that Queen Elizabeth I is in the twilight of her life and, due to her long-standing stance as the “Virgin Queen”, has managed to sire no legit heirs to the throne to take over when she passes on. To that end, we witness as a game of political intrigue starts to take shape. On one side of the field we have the Earl of Oxford and his ally the 3rd Earl of Southampton who also happens to be Elizabeth’s illegitimate son. Going up against them is the Earl of Oxford’s father-in-law and his kid, the 1st Earl of Salisbury, who are backing Elizabeth’s sister Mary’s kid James. Thus as the stage is riveted with de Vere’s various work and the ominous political machinations slowly start bleeding into the work that de Vere puts to paper, we soon witness as horrible truths come into the open and no more and no less the fate of England is up for grabs.
Right off the bat I guess I should let you know that going into this film looking for a degree of historical accuracy would not be the best idea in the world. This is because this movie’s plot, to say nothing of the real-life controversy, is one which deals less in facts and more in an arcane theory few even are aware of. Indeed the fact that this film has been molded in this theory really is a step away from what modern people claim to know what is true about that distinct time and place in history. Indeed this is a slice of cinematic pie that tries to plug a few of the holes in the vast expanse of history and to that end credit must be given to the makers of this movie for going with a genuine and intriguing theory for the basis of the narrative rather than using it to present a certain position on something. In that respect, this feels similar to Oliver Stone’s JFK from 1991 except it revolves around a group of plays rather than an assassinated President. Like JFK though, this film is also desiring to be quite divisive in what it is trying to convey. Heck the people who made this movie all but acknowledged that in how they take artistic licensing with facts in order to showcase this story for us due to their familiarity with the concept that whenever we depict a period of history in film, there is always a bit that is not as organic as the filmmaker would like. To that end, I think it is a lot easier to review this slice of cinematic pie on its technical ingredients rather than dispute with it in regards to who it believes truly wrote the literary masterpieces of one William Shakespeare.
Now with all of that out of the way, I do think that it cannot be denied that this slice of cinematic pie is particularly stylish. Indeed this movie’s technical work is actually fairly good and when looking at this film from a vibe and visual point of view it is fairly persuasive. Indeed this is one slice of cinematic pie that manages to combine quite a few digital backgrounds alongside in the flesh performances and in the process conjures up a fairly authentic recreation of what England looked like during Elizabeth the 1st’s reign. The photography work that goes hand in hand with that is also quite phenomenal as Emmerich and his team manage to do a great job of drawing up an ominous yet riveting look at this era from long ago whilst also utilizing fairly well the ideas of shadow, location, and style to strengthen both sets of dramas that are playing out throughout the course of this film. Finally, from a technical standpoint, it should also be noted that the work done by the cast in this is genuine as not only does each person actually look and sound like they are from the era, but the script they are working with is on the money and fairly well thought out in equal measure. Yet while there is not a weak link in this cast, I did feel that a pair of standouts were Rhys Ifans who is phenomenal as the purported writer not getting the credit he feels he deserves and screen icon Vanessa Redgrave who gives this more scandalized take on Queen Elizabeth the proper dignity and grace that only someone like Redgrave can give a role such as this.
With that being said however, it should also be said that this film is not one for everyone. That’s because for all the positives this has going for it, it also is as stuffy from a drama perspective as some of the worst 1800s period dramas made. Yes it does deviate from Emmerich typically makes movies, but it still manages to showcase the soul of this kind of film fairly well. Sadly it is way too overelaborate even for this kind of film so that even if you are someone who knows the people and era involved you most assuredly may just need to see this film more than once and if you have no knowledge of Shakespeare whatsoever….well you might just be better off skipping this one. Thankfully, for the group in the former category, this film is a lot more understandable when you watch it again even if a lot of the more intricate aspects still might seem a bit fuzzy. As it is though, Emmerich just puts too many characters in the mix, jumps between various timelines too much, and packs way too much in the way of narrative and plot threads that go nowhere into a runtime of over two hours. Put another way: this film is, oddly for Emmerich (though I do love his films), way too ambitious in bringing together a pair of narratives that I honestly think something resembling a miniseries would have been a lot better for this than just a singular movie.
All in all I am sad to say movie goer that by and large the slice of cinematic pie that is Anonymous is one that doesn’t exactly get everything sorted out all neat and tidy even when watching this slice of cinematic pie for the very first time. A fact that is backed up immensely by the fact that this movie is one that is complicated and then some to say nothing of the fact that it will most assuredly leave quite a few of you scratching your head in bewilderment about what you just viewed or even why you chose to view it. On the other side of the coin, this slice of cinematic pie is beautiful to look at, it is fairly decently constructed, and the performances are surprisingly not too bad. Sadly these elements find themselves constantly thwarted by a narrative that should be intriguing, but is instead equal parts too much in terms of stuffy and ambitious respectively. As for how it does in pushing forward the particular theory it is championing, I can also say that the slice of cinematic pie that is Anonymous does ultimately do a decent job of showcasing for us a look, albeit one that is fictional, on how things may have gone down. If you are able to be convinced by what this movie chooses to argue then this is most likely because those involved in the making of this film don’t really give us any other counterarguments to really consider. Flaws and all though, I do feel that perhaps this film might just be ok at being, if nothing else, a catalyst for a curious movie goer to immerse themselves deeper into this mystery and ultimately decide for themselves what they choose to believe in regards to who really wrote some of the most famous work in all of the English language. On a scale of 1-5 I give Anonymous “2011” a solid 3 out of 5.