Reviewed by: David Graham

Roland Emmerich takes a break from obliterating our world to dive into the Shakespearean authorship debate, returning to the period trappings he embraced with post-Braveheart Mel Gibson's vehicle The Patriot to similarly mixed success. A combustible tale about the politics of plays and the propaganda in poetry, Anonymous has much to commend it, not least Rhys Ifans' mercurial lead turn.

It's anything but another stuffy history lesson, packing screeds of soapy intrigue and a cavalcade of suitably theatrical characters into its generous but appropriate running time. Unfortunately, a somewhat uneven tone, variable acting and some obvious untapped potential to weave the Bard's magical work into the story's fabric make the film something of a missed opportunity.

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Queen Elizabeth I's reign is coming to an close: if her age doesn't end her then the usurping ambitions of her advisers the Cecils surely will. Her one-time lover Edward de Vere can see all too clearly the danger this puts his country in, and resolves to galvanise the people with the only power he knows; that of prose and performance. His creative leanings having been suppressed by his art-shunning in-laws, the Earl picks aspiring playwright Ben Johnson as the pawn to plant his plays anonymously in the public eye.

Their immediate popularity proves how much of a threat their message could be to those seeking to take control of the throne, but before he gets to really sharpen his quill, his work is claimed by an illiterate wastrel actor by the name of Will Shakespeare. Seeing this clown as a perhaps serendipitous puppet, De Vere begrudgingly allows the situation to unfold, but Shakespeare's blackmailing and the Cecils' growing suspicions could scupper his plans before they come to fruition. Johnson may be the only one who can see the Earl's plot become reality, if he can overcome his natural jealousy and dodge the spies closing in on the identity of the real playwright.

Emmerich has bitten off a huge wedge of historical fact and preposterous conspiracy theory here, so it's to his credit that he deals with it in a relatively playful manner. Acolytes of the Bard will want to throw tomatoes at the screen, but the film is so snappily paced and energetically mounted that it's hard to pick holes in its borderline-sacrilegious suppositions. The already convoluted narrative may throw casual viewers with its non-linear flitting between three time-frames (four if you count the wraparound sequences), but it all serves to keep the viewer on their toes and involved with the various mysteries bubbling over beneath the main story.

It's somewhat surprising but perhaps wise that the writers haven't taken the whodunit approach to the authorship debate; this may have initially made sense but would no doubt have lead to even more hackneyed revelations than there already are. Putting De Vere front and centre lets him evolve as a character as we flashback to his earlier life; at every stage of his journey he's a deeply fascinating concoction, all stubborn wit but naively romantic. Despite the distraction of his appearing to be morphing into another Welsh thesp - his similarity to the young Anthony Hopkins is at times striking - Ifans is brilliantly mercurial, an utterly magnetic presence even when he's not delivering his loaded dialogue with a mock-Shakespearean flourish.

Thankfully, with all the potential for scenery-chewing and grand-standing, he's a good deal subtler than ol' Hannibal. In fact, Ifans is a lot subtler here than he is himself usually, wringing real emotion out of his relationship with his creativity. It is posited to be a chain around his neck at some points and a release from reality at others, but Ifans doesn't over-egg the drama inherent in creating drama and putting it out into the world.

With pleasing continuity, Joely Richardson and her mother Vanessa Redgrave both bring gravitas and yearning to the role of Queen Elizabeth, and in poignantly different ways; the former is feisty and flighty, the latter losing her senses and judgement, if not her will. In another pleasing pan-generational thread, David Thewlis and Edward Hogg both make excellent boo-hiss pantomime villains, undercutting their nastiness with some subtle vulnerability and a hypocritical self-belief.

The rest of the vast cast unfortunately fare less well; Xavier Samuel is a little too pretty and one-note as De Vere's young ally the Earl Of Southampton, while Jamie Campbell Bower has the pomp and posture to pull of the young De Vere but fails to convince as an all-round prodigy and royalty-tempting libertine. Rafe Spall is subversively foppish, foolish and common as young Shakespeare, but he feels out of place. It's a shame the Bard is wasted as a source of light relief, when the script should have given him more to do and could have mined some real satire from his idiocy. The worst offender is Sebastian Armesto as Johnson. His wavering accent, awkward way with dialogue and fatal lack of period charm conspire to make what should have been a crucial character somewhat tortuous to endure.

It's a real shame the script can't find more imaginative ways to link the plays and their language to the action on-screen; it's lovely to see and hear some authentic performances but it would have made more sense to focus on one or two of the plays and use them to mirror the events of the film's storyline. Like Woody Allen's recent literary fantasy Midnight In Paris, a raft of classic works are name-checked as if by an eager-to-impress pupil at a university tutorial, but their ever-malleable substance is squandered by being glimpsed only in passing. The scenes involving Richard III highlight what could have been, with the on-stage action whipping the Globe's audience into a frenzy. It's a truly bracing moment that effectively communicates the power Shakespeare's writing had at the time and to this day.

Thereafter it all gets a little too reverential, with the chase to seize the manuscripts and the fate of De Vere feeling like postscripts to an already over-convoluted narrative. Derek Jacobi's gushing during the natty modern-day bookends also feels a little like a know-it-all lecturer preaching to the converted as by that point the film has just about outstayed its welcome. Visually, some of the CGI shots have the burnished glow of the period's paintings, while others - especially those involving darker lighting - are embarrassingly cheap. It could all be excused as part of Emmerich's meta-theatre approach, but a few more real locations, particularly outdoors, certainly would have added to the atmosphere.

For the most part however this is a refreshing change of pace for Shakespearean cinema, wrestling with interesting themes of art as a weapon, as well as a potentially corrupting, sinful endeavor. If Emmerich doesn't quite hit all his targets dead-on, he should at least be commended for trying to take his career and chosen genre down a less obvious route while remaining crowd-pleasing and reassuringly accessible for non-scholars and the literati alike.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2011
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A star-studded British cast graces Roland Emmerich's exploration of the contested authorship of Shakespeare's works.
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Director: Roland Emmerich

Writer: John Orloff

Starring: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis

Year: 2011

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: UK, Germany


London 2011

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