Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Anonymous

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sebastian Armesto, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi
Grade: C+

Whatever our preconceptions about history, it’s easy to take them for granted. When you begin to study the subject you realise that there is rarely a uniform view about anything, and that notions of ‘truth’ are much more murky and uncertain than they appear on the surface. An unlikely purveyor of oppositional theory, Roland Emmerich is more at home with adhering to the expectations of an audience than going against them, but nevertheless helms this tale of fiction’s indubitubly reprised hero William Shakespeare, who has his name on works as iconic as “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” but does that categorically mean that he wrote them? Emphatically, Emmerich suggests that he didn’t, and that instead these plays were written by the then-Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere – an accusation which represents one of the many theories as to the identity of the true author.

If all of this sounds like a far-fetched attempt at rewriting the history books, then consider this: RSC stalwarts Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave both star in “Anonymous” and advocate its claims. Beyond this film there is weight to the discussion, but Emmerich, protective of the mantra that entertainment supercedes debate, opts to forego cultural responsibility and craft a film that flaunts the factional warfare of Elizabethan politics rather than scrutinising the subject at hand. William Shakespeare (Spall) is portrayed as an illiterate, lecherous fool, and De Vere (Ifans) as the nobleman skirting the stigma of the artist’s profession. The Earl produces the plays, using poet Samuel Johnson (Armesto) as a go-between, and relays a left-wing political voice which opposes the royal aides who surround elderly Queen Elizabeth I (Redgrave).

A story littered with scandalous accusations of sex, betrayal, and incest, “Anonymous” is far too overstuffed and, frankly, ridiculous to achieve any rounded view of history. The goals of the film are in allaying facts and providing a gung-ho impression of Elizabethan England as a haven for self-interested charlatans, and as such asserts that the truth may be even stranger than fiction. But it’s self-parodical in its radicalism of history as laden with hateful, preposterous characters and cross-generational romances, integrating soapy melodrama into the narrative without riffing on artistic tropes the way that “Shakespeare in Love” did thirteen years ago. It’s probably the trashiest representation of the era since at least “Mary, Queen of Scots” in 1971, proffering snap political decisions as the catalyst for emotional grandstanding.

While many will scoff at Emmerich’s commercialisation of 16th century life, the film’s sheer audacity as an anti-history lesson, estranged from logic, is one of its key attributes. There are storylines and plot twists in “Anonymous” which defy belief, but watching them unfold is often tremendous fun, with Redgrave in fine form as the frothy, culture-loving monarch, and Ifans statuesque as the haughty, melancholy puppetmaster observing from the sidelines. There’s a great deal of character brought to the film, which likely benefits from shying away from straight-laced drama and a self-important tone. The inevitable problems emerge from interloping figures, cliched subplots, intercutting between timeframes (all of which have plagued Emmerich’s films before) and primarily the framing of the theory as a viable option in the first place. It’s difficult to imagine that anybody watching “Anonymous” would entertain this impression of Shakespeare as anything other than a fictional fancy, since so much within its approach spurns intellectual engagement for other exploits.

For Emmerich, “Anonymous” may have initiated a departure from his usual disaster movie blockbusters, but as a competent cinematic storyteller dependent upon familiar narrative beats and clichés, this isn’t a million miles away from his usual fare. Unfathomably, he has fashioned high-brow into low-brow; turned one of the most prestigious periods for literature into a crowdpleasing piece of frippery about profligates and schemers. It’s a loose cannon of a picture, enjoyably frothing with issues and intrigue, but often clumsily executed and manically curtailed in its final third. “Anonymous” even does its best to destroy the credibility of the argument it's founded upon. But for all of that, and irrespective of whether you view this as the work of a hack, a heathen, or a dillettante, it commands admiration for the gall of the venture alone. The world of the theatre may be shown up for its deception here, but it has rarely felt this alive and well.

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I have not seen the film, so I rather suspect I should offer no thoughts on it. Still, I rather suspect that had it played up the levity of the situation (since, no one really believes that is true, right?) the film would have been ultimately more well received. When I do see it, it shall be simply for Redgrave.