Anonymous (2011)

(On Cable TV, October 2012) My appreciation for Anonymous is severely limited by my lack of interest regarding the Shakespeake Authorship question.  Call me a Stratfordian, if you think I care: I’m not a good audience for conspiracy theories, and the one featured in this film is so ludicrous that it repeatedly challenges any suspension of disbelief.  But let’s give Anonymous the benefit of its premise, which is to say that Shakespeare’s plays were truly written by a nobleman who wished to conceal his identity:  How well does the film manage to execute this idea?  At first, not very well: while the film begins with a superb framing device seamlessly taking modern audiences back in time, it quickly hobbles itself with confusing character introductions, blunt nestled flashbacks five-then-forty years earlier and a lack of grace in the way it sets up its plot elements.  Fortunately, the ride gets smoother once the premise is established and the pieces finally start moving in the direction of a political thriller.  Still, the ending will challenge viewers, as every-harder-to-accept revelations are piled on until credulity snaps and even viewers without deep knowledge of the period will understand that it’s all fantasy.  (For a so-called virgin queen, Elizabeth I in this film had enough illegitimate kids to keep a daycare facility busy.)  While the structure of the plot is distinctively unusual, there are still a lot of unpleasant edges in the script that could have used some polishing.  Fortunately, Anonymous isn’t all about the writing: The biggest thrill of the film is a gorgeously presented Elizabethan-era London, including a convincing re-creation of the Globe theater.  Director Roland Emmerich may have issues with scripts (see; well, his entire filmography) but his eye for striking cinematography remains intact.  He also lucked out with a few capable actors in key roles: Rhys Ifans becomes a fascinating Edward de Vere, a complex figure who never manages to reconcile his desires with what is expected of him as the Earl of Oxford. (He gets the film’s best lines as he explains his compulsion to write.)  Elizabeth I is also cleverly incarnated by a mother/daughter pair: Vanessa Redgrave as the elder queen comfortable in the power of her station, and Joely Richardson as her red-hot younger self.  It amounts to a surprisingly engaging film despite the imperfect, perhaps fundamentally flawed film.  Anonymous works quite a bit better as a gonzo historical fantasy than an attempt to tell a true story –you don’t have to look long to find accounts of historians laughing themselves to tears over the film.  Historical accuracy aside, it’s a film with a surprisingly strong list of assets, and I won’t let my basic disagreement about its premise blind me to its merits.  Have a look… but don’t believe a single word of it.

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