REVIEW ROUND-UP: Roland Emmerich’s ‘Anonymous’ in Toronto

One of the most puzzling movies of the Fall movie season has to be Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. The confusing part is not the fact that the movie promotes the bizarre theory that Shakespeare did not actually write his own plays, but they were instead anonymously written and credited to a man who was barely literate. Where it actually gets puzzling is when it is pointed out that the film is written by John Orloff, who penned Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and directed by Roland Emmerich, who is almost solely known for directing apocalyptic blockbusters like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Almost every critic addresses that unusual mash-up in the reviews of the film that recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival.

Anonymous purports that the actual writer of Shakespeare’s works was the Earl of Oxford who had to keep his identity a secret for political reasons. The film is set against the backdrop of the Essex Rebellion and naturally features its fair amount of climactic battle scenes interspersed with the iambic pentameter. The film stars Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, David Thewlis, and Jamie Campbell Bower among others.

Stephanie Zecharek of Movieline says that the film was very difficult to take seriously, but enjoyable for what it did provide. For her it was really two performances that made it watchable:

The whole affair is rather silly, and more than a little boring, but there are a few flashes of brilliance tucked amid Emmerich’s bid for period-picture classiness. First, there’s the inspired casting of Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Joely Richardson, as old and young versions of Queen Elizabeth I. Richardson, with her tumble of pale curls, looks like a living, breathing version of John Millais’  Ophelia, but tougher. Redgrave plays her version of the character as if she has become more emotionally vulnerable, not less, with age — the older Elizabeth just works harder to submerge it beneath her imperious veneer.

Damon Wise of The Guardian says that the film is by no stretch a masterpiece, but considering the director and confusing nature of the plot, it was very watchable:

The politics of the late 17th century comes heavily to play, most of it retrofitted to match the theory. But beneath the CG and bombast there is a very enjoyable film. Emmerich vividly portrays Elizabethan audiences and their visceral appreciation of the plays put before them.

More importantly, he draws on the Queen’s own fascination with dramaturgy and poetry, which allows the film to dwell rather interestingly on the connection between art and politics (“All art is political, otherwise it would just be decoration,” snaps Oxford). And most fittingly for a play about such great works, there are some wonderful performances too, despite the unengaging leads.

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter calls this Emmerich’s most restrained directing ever. However, he does agree that it is actually the performances that save the film:

Rhys Ifans does a smart and, yes, noble turn as Oxford, who initiates a political intrigue with his secretly authored plays only to find himself at the center of a Greek tragedy. David Thewlisas Elizabeth’s key advisor, William Cecil, and Edward Hoggas his hunchback son and successor, Robert, are political insiders incarnate: They probably could find a self-interested motive for going to the loo.

Robert Koehler of Variety talks about how the movie tries to be more fun than literary and ultimately makes a few too many mistakes becoming too confusing:

Pic strains under the constant switches in time signature, which are sometimes dramatically effective and revealing of character, and other times overworked and fussy. There are even occasions when inattentive viewers may not immediately grasp which part of the Elizabethan era is being depicted, so quick and constant are some of the temporal changes.

Anonymous will be in theatres in the U.S. on October 28, 2011.

Oscar Speculation

There was never much thought given to this movie as a real Awards contender even in the technical categories. The most highly praised performance seems to come from Vanessa Redgrave, but she already has been hailed in the much better received Coriolanus. It will be most interesting to see if this signifies a new direction for Roland Emmerich’s career or if he will follow it up with The World Explodes, Part 17.

Other Fall 2011 Review Round-Ups:

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