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The Most Unkindest Cut of All

Anonymous (2011)

Reiner Bajo/Columbia Pictures

Roland Emmerich has never been one to let history get in the way of a good story. His 2000 film, “The Patriot,” took untold liberties with the facts of the American Revolution, idolizing Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin while utterly damning the actions of the British. It should come as no real surprise, then, that Mr. Emmerich luxuriates in creating a wildly and wholly inaccurate world of Elizabethan-era London for his latest picture, “Anonymous.”

Utilizing a discredited niche conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) was a bumbling fraud and a mere front for the refined Earl of Oxford (a brooding and camp Rhys Ifans) as the basis for this alternative history, Mr. Emmerich and scribe John Orloff make the critical mistake of promoting this faction as in any way credible.

Perhaps sensing that the audience might need convincing from the off, the clunky prologue sees Derek Jacobi on a Broadway stage questioning the veracity of Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays. It’s telling that this is considered necessary — although given the ludicrousness of what then transpires, it’s a device that attempts to at least lend credence and gravitas to the rest of the film.

Rewind to the supposed Shakespearian times: Set against a backdrop of the Elizabethan succession question, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford visits the theater and is seemingly impressed with its power to connect with the proles. Sensing that he might be able to leverage this power for political gain, Oxford realizes that the theater might provide the medium through which to promote the claims of the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) ahead of the establishment backed claimant, James of Scotland.

Rewind a further 40 years: An impish Oxford performs “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Queen Elizabeth (an impressive dual performance from real-life mother and daughter, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson) and her court. Penned by the Oxford’s hand, Elizabeth is enamored with his prodigious talent. With Oxford effectively outed as the true author of one of Shakespeare’s works, Mr. Emmerich gets to work on filling in the hows and the whys.

Mr. Emmerich’s narrative then proceeds to flit endlessly back and forth, as we are thrust between the late Elizabethan era — where Oxford approaches Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) with his plan to publish and perform his plays under Jonson’s name in a bid to rouse the people behind Essex — and Oxford’s childhood in the house of Cecil by way of a relationship with the “virgin” queen. It’s all a bit clunky and distracting; and things certainly aren’t helped by some woeful dialogue.

In any case, Oxford’s “Henry V” is granted a performance and succeeds in rousing the plebs who are so convinced by its incredibly powerful sentiment. Yet Oxford’s plan hits the skids as a bumbling Shakespeare — rather than Jonson — claims the credit, the plaudits and the ensuing pecuniary rewards. Sadly, Mr. Spall’s Shakespeare is an embarrassment and little more than a one-dimensional character assassination, as he’s subsequently depicted as a greedy, murderous, money-hungry opportunist.

As Shakespeare’s reputation grows and Oxford’s thinly-veiled attacks on the cartoonish William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg respectively) continue unabated, duplicitous plots abound with Essex and his trusted sidekick the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) vowing to destroy the Cecils, who likewise want to do away with the rogue Earls.

By this stage, anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of history will not only be entirely flummoxed by this nonsense, but will also know that things won’t go the way of Oxford and the Earls; and by the time the third act plays out and the revelations and twists grow ever more outlandish (the final reveal will cause a few groans), history has been well and truly consigned to the dustbin. That said, the enjoyment factor is exponentially ramped up; and despite being as historically accurate as Mr. Emmerich’s “Godzilla,” it’s enjoyable guff.

Visually, “Anonymous” is stunning. Anna Foerster’s cinematography is rich and vibrant; and the recreations of the theater scenes are particularly impressive. Likewise, the digital realization of Elizabethan London is remarkable and is an exciting showcase for the capabilities of the fledgling Arri Alexa digital camera.

Mr. Ifans and Ms. Redgrave are commendable; and Mr. Hogg is perfectly villainous. But their efforts are somewhat diluted by Mr. Spall’s woeful Shakespeare, the blame for which can presumably be placed at the feet of Mr. Orloff, who drops more than a few clangers along the way. “Anonymous,” then, is a veritable mixed bag. If audiences check their brains in at the door and ignore Messrs. Emmerich and Orloff’s flagrant disregard for history, then there’s plenty of fun to be had — and why should we let history get in the way of that?


Opens on Oct. 28 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Roland Emmerich; written by John Orloff; director of photography, Anna J. Foerster; edited by Peter R. Adam; music by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser; production design by Sebastian T. Krawinkel; costumes by Lisy Christl; produced by Mr. Emmerich, Larry Franco and Robert Léger; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Rhys Ifans (Earl of Oxford), Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Joely Richardson (Young Queen Elizabeth), David Thewlis (William Cecil), Xavier Samuel (Earl of Southampton), Sebastian Armesto (Ben Jonson), Rafe Spall (William Shakespeare), Sam Reid (Earl of Essex), Jamie Campbell Bower (Young Earl of Oxford), Edward Hogg (Robert Cecil), Mark Rylance (Condell) and Derek Jacobi (Prologue).


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