Monday, October 31, 2011

Cinematics Anonymous

As Sir Derek Jacobi reminds us in his opening monologue for the feature film Anonymous, William Shakespeare is the most well known and successful writer of all time. With a written library consisting of some 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two epic poems and a multitude of other works of poetry, Shakespeare is without peer in just about every literary regard. Everybody knows his name. All high school teens are tasked with reading his works. The most famous lines by characters such as Marcus Antonius, Romeo Montague and Prince Hamlet are remembered (and on occasion misremembered) my millions. But why have no manuscripts of the bard ever surfaced? Why are we to believe that the son of a glove maker with a supposedly limited education was able to pen such beautiful poetry that we still absorb today? That has been a question posed over hundreds of years since his death, and there does seem to be an ample lack of evidence to prove that Shakespeare was indeed the author of those titles attributed to him. While lack of evidence is not evidence in itself, this has not stopped historians and others from naming Shakespeare as a pseudonym for politician Francis Bacon, fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, and the Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere. It is de Vere's potential authorship of these legendary plays that inspires Anonymous, the newest film by Roland Emmerich. Yes, that's right; Roland Emmerich directed a political thriller ripe with intrigue. This is the same guy whose greatest cinematic triumph was the orbital destruction of the White House, way back in 1996. At first learning that he was in charge of a period drama, I admit that I had serious doubts, even while taking his brand of historical accuracy with a grain of salt. Still, as a potential dark horse in this year's awards race, I would be remiss to avoid this film, which still looked interesting despite its potential flaws.

Eavesdropper's Anonymous
During the reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), several factions are vying to name her heir as her final days approach. Her royal adviser William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg) believe that rightfully the next ruler should be James, the King of Scotland. However, there are other claimers to the throne, such as the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), supposedly a bastard son of the Queen. The Lord of Oxford Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) supports Essex's claim, but urges a bloodless push for the crown. To that end, and having learned how easily the theater can influence a crowd towards a particular way of thinking, de Vere turns to his outlawed craft - the Puritan Church believes theater and art to be the Devil's work - and taps young playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to produce de Vere's own plays under Jonson's name, using the stories to silently provoking the people of England to hate the Cecils and towards a monarchy under the Earl of Essex. Jonson however is hesitant to be part of this, and because of this, prospective actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steals the limelight, assuming credit for de Vere's work and altering the very course of history in the process.

Overcompensator's Anonymous
The first thing to get over when it comes to enjoying Anonymous is the fact that any historical data is misunderstood at best, and outright false at worst. Obviously we can't assume that the main idea behind this film is true or false since the whole thing is speculative by nature. However, all one has to do is scroll down to the bottom of the film's Wikipedia page to see even a small number of inaccuracies that we DO know for fact. This is no surprise when you consider that Emmerich has always been a director that has emphasized the impact of the film on the audience, and would never let silly things like truth get in the way. Once you get past this notion that everything should be exactly like it was in real life and you realize that you're watching a MOVIE, you can appreciate how Emmerich has created a thrilling political drama with enough layers of narrative to be worthy of one of Shakespeare's originals. When  you compare it to critically overrated films like The Ides of March, there's really very little wrong with the director's execution of his intent when it is done so perfectly. 

Greenskeeper's Anonymous
Emmerich also defies expectations by avoiding particularly well-known actors in his pursuit of this film's cast. With the possible exception of Vanessa Redgrave, who's as top-tier as this film gets, most of the people cast here are recognizable from one or two major movie stints or have never made much of an impact before now. Redgrave herself is regal and dynamic as the legendary monarch Queen Elizabeth I. Walking a tightrope of many conflicting emotions, Redgrave really embodies everything that the character demands, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her nominated for some awards in future months. This would be yet another nomination for a Queen Elizabeth actress, following Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, fine company for an artist of Redgrave's caliber (I know she already is at that level, just give me that one). Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is a wonder to behold; as his calculating, emotional take on de Vere is simply amazing, with a mere glance more than adequate in conveying his entire portion of a conversation. When he does open his mouth, every word of every sentence is strained into the perfect form for your listening pleasure. Ifans proves here that he's an untapped resource, ripe for his role in next year's Spiderman reboot. Sebastian Armesto is our moral compass as Ben Jonson, watching both halves of the major narratives play out while being tugged one way and the other by those around him. Armesto does a great job, with an acting performance that is sadly out-shined by most surrounding him but would be more than adequate in any period piece. Rafe Spall on the other hand is absolutely delicious as the false bard William Shakespeare. Playing the poet as a clever, greedy and vengeful tyrant, Spall is fresh as one of the film's more charismatic villains. The other main villain, played by Edward Hogg, is far less charming but intentionally so, as Robert Cecil is so obviously supposed to be evil that he in fact is physically deformed. Hogg is still very effective, in fact overcoming the obvious oversimplification of his character to be a real menace, one with which to be contended. Finally, while an entire section of the movie devoted to flashbacks of young romance between de Veres and Elizabeth is in fact unnecessary, acting by Camelot's Jamie Campbell Bower and Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson is at least welcome as that section's true highlight.

Bodice Anonymous
The film does have some minor flaws, even in pure entertainment mode. Some characters aren't explicitly defined, and when people are referring to the Lords of Southampton or Essex, it's not entire certain which performer corresponds to that name. While much of the plot and tale is properly introduced so that the audience can easily follow along the main story's path, I can't help but feel that there was much in the way of inside humor that only Elizabethan historians or enthusiasts could have properly understood. And despite being intrigued by Jacobi's acting, his introduction to the story as being a stage play in itself is a bit underwhelming, as unappetizing and unnecessary as the aforementioned flashbacks. If he's simply narrated over a blank screen to begin the film, I could have been more appreciative of his inclusion. Finally, the ending doesn't quite make sense, or it would have if it had been better constructed. Instead we get a shallow, half-finished finale that doesn't precisely explain how the idea of de Vere writing Shakespeare's plays is supported by any existing evidence. We're reminded that this is mere speculation, and while this is probably more realistic than say, Shakespeare in Love, it has no more basis in historical fact than that earlier Oscar winner did.

Poet Laureate's Anonymous
Still, as a filmmaker Emmerich really knows how to push an audience's buttons and evoke a response of pure enjoyment from what he produces. A clever-if-unfeasible study of one of history's bigger mysteries, Anonymous tucks itself in as the #7 movie of 2011. Great acting, a well-told story and more tales of the Bard than you would normally see under any roof other than that of the Globe Theater, this is that rare example of anything and everything working out much better than it probably should have Definitely worth a look.

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