Anonymous (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Anonymous (2011)

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"Voice!  You have no voice, that is why I chose you!"

Before I know it, I'll be long dead and the words on this blog will become bits of slowly forgotten text on the internet.  I hope to write something so amusing an intrepid cyberspace wanderer will get the faintest of inklings in their memory and look at one of those stalwart internet archive projects to find something I wrote.  Maybe, if I'm really lucky, I'll be attributed some modest success and an academically-informed observation of mine becomes a footnote in some students paper for Freshman English classes for generations to come.

Realistically, I'll be dead, and it (presumably) won't matter what I wrote so long as it made me happy while I was alive.  But if my name were attributed to the next Faulkner or McCarthy, that would be one marvelous legacy.  Earned or no, I would be content having my name spelled out in school texts for quite some time, no matter how small the footnote.

The beauty of Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, isn't so much that it perpetuates the idea Shakespeare wrote his plays or not.  He is dead and it is completely irrelevant who really wrote his words as it's not like he's going to pop back up to argue with some conspiracy theorist who thinks an Oxford Earl wrote those words.  But his film works in so many different directions a wide range of audiences can come away from the film with entirely different messages.

On one level, it's how important the legacy you leave once you are dead is while you are still alive.  For another, it's a fantastic psuedo-historical document about what it would have been like if Shakespeare did not write those wonderful turns of phrase.  Others still, they may just think it an entertaining picture, gorgeously photographed, about a world they've never seen.

The important thing to take away from Anonymous is this, don't judge the goods before they're made for consumption.  Emmerich received an unnecessary amount of pre-release derision as he was responsible for the big budget blow-up the world spectaculars Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, amongst other disaster-laden films.  But he produces top-notch entertainment, either in the directing role or in his many producing features (my favorite being the new camp classic Eight Legged Freaks).

Anonymous, by most critical measures, is a damn fine film and possibly the best he's done.  My tastes tend toward the more "highbrow", so I say this with full appreciation of Independence Day.  It's thoughtful in framing, presenting the story itself as a fiction performed onstage introduced and narrated with stunning immediacy by the renowned actor Sir Derek Jacobi.  Afterward we're launched into a dizzyingly dense Elizabethian world populated by intrigue and political scandal galore.

The faults existing within Anonymous have more to do with this density of plot than any artistic or execution based merits.  This is a story which deserves the full seven part Masterpiece Theater treatment and it gets tiresome to track the plot threads at times.  Making things more confusing is an elliptical story structure, effectively employed, but jumping back and forth throughout a period of history which may be mostly fiction to begin with.

Rhys Ifans gives an absorbing performance as Edward de Vere, the possible author of Shakespeare's texts.  In a means of inciting political action against the rival Cecil family and to avoid the scorn of the aristocrats (most memorably encapsulated through David Thewlis' role as William), he provides manuscripts of Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet to Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), a struggling playwright.  After the rousing success of Henry V a drunken actor named Shakespeare (the amusing Rafe Spall) takes credit for the plays, which are in part meant to honor Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave).

Emmerich keeps things together through this otherwise difficult, but magnificent, screenplay by John Orloff (Band of Brothers, A Mighty Heart) even with the shifts in time-line.  They aren't just for cheap effect, given the bias of the narrator (Jacobi sincerely believes Shakespeare was not the author), it makes sense how the film would structure its flashbacks around events leading to the unfortunate conclusion.

Anonymous also brings Elizabethian-era England to stunning life.  Calling attention to the artificiality of the production just let's me marvel at it more.  It is a dirty, robust place, filled with life and song, as well as capable of goosebump-inducing visual moments.  I was shivering with delight during the first performance of Henry V, a stirring reminder of the power of live theater to involve the crowd, the potency of Shakespeare's words, and films ability to capture the immediacy of these moments.  It is no small feat that Emmerich is able to secure several more of these powerful moments before the curtains fall.

Entering Anonymous with low expectations concluded with one of cinemas greatest surprises, a truly wonderful film.  Fans of Brannagh's earlier Shakespeare interpretations will fit right in (especially those in love with his Hamlet).  For the rest, it is a stellar entertainment.

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Anonymous (2011)

Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Screenplay by John Orloff.
Starring Rys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Sebastian Armesto and Rafe Spall.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. The film had its fair share of flaws but Emmerich really keeps this film moving with a story that is detailed with great mystery to it, and shows his love for Shakespeare’s writing very well. Let’s just hope he sticks away from blowing up the world the now. Good review right here.

    • Thanks Dan. There are definitely some flaws as the film hits some severe pacing issues in the 2nd / 3rd act transition. But you are absolutely correct in how much he loves Shakespeare’s writing. I was a bit conflicted if it was the words or the presentation which struck me so much in those moments, but it was a wonderful alchemy between the two.

      I’m ok if he keeps blowing up the world (a 50% success rate on entertainment isn’t so bad), but it’s great to know he’s capable of more.

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