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"ANONYMOUS"
(2011) (Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The future of the British monarchy lies in balance while an Earl anonymously continues to write plays and more, all for which an actor named William Shakespeare is taking credit.
PLOT:
It's the late 16th century and Edward, the Earl of Oxford (RHYS IFANS) is a frustrated writer. Married to the daughter of William Cecil (DAVID THEWLIS), who's the royal advisor to Queen Elizabeth (VANESSA REDGRAVE), and due to his position within the British Monarchy, along with the negative view of creative writing in general among the aristocracy, he decides the only way he's going to see his work on the stage is to give it to a playwright and allow that person lay claim to the work and any resultant fame and fortune that comes with it.

Accordingly, he hand-picks playwright Ben Jonson (SEBASTIAN ARMESTO) who toils along the likes of Christopher Marlowe (TRYSTAN GRAVELLE) and two-bit actor William Shakespeare (RAFE SPALL). Unfortunately for both Ben and Edward, the opportunistic actor takes advantage of the audience wanting to meet the writer at the successful conclusion of a play.

But such plays don't sit well with William's adult son, Robert Cecil (EDWARD HOGG), who grew up alongside young Edward (JAMIE CAMPBELL BOWER) when the latter came to live among the Tudor's following his father's death. That was especially true since Edward back then was the favorite of young Queen Elizabeth (JOELY RICHARDSON), and the two had a love affair.

Now, as Edward watches Shakespeare gain in fame from his plays, the Cecils try to sway the decision of who will succeed the aging Queen, all while the Earl of Southampton (XAVIER SAMUEL) and the Earl of Essex (SAM REID) have their own desires regarding that. As all of that plays out, the various secrets threaten to undermine everything that everyone has worked so hard to set up and maintain.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
People love conspiracy theories. Maybe it's because they're bored in their day-to-day lives and want some sort of tantalizing escape that's filled with mystery and intrigue. Or it could be that they don't trust authority figures and think that they're involved in lies, cover-ups and such. Whatever the case, such tales have certainly kept the gossip mills running over the decades.

Back after the assassination of President Kennedy, it was whether Lee Harvey Oswald was working alone. More recently, there's been rumor that the American government was involved in the terrorist activities of 9/11. More benign, but still popular are tales that Elvis didn't die back in the '70s, the Apollo moon landing was faked, and that there are UFOs and aliens kept under lock and key in Roswell, New Mexico.

One that isn't quite as "sexy" is the belief among some that William Shakespeare didn't write the collective works of the Bard, was a pen name for someone else and other such hoo-hah. Who knows, maybe it was Elvis who wrote the likes of "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and the like before being transported to the 1950s -- via one of those Roswell flying saucers -- where he took up a new form of mass entertainment.

The King doesn't leave or even enter the building in "Anonymous," but the flick is all about that Shakespearean conspiracy theory. Bookended by modern day prologue and epilogue pieces where a stage actor introduces the notion and we're then sent back in time to the days of the Bard, the film arrives from the hands of none other than Roland Emmerich. While he might not be a household name along the lines of Spielberg, Scorsese or Cameron, the filmmaker has delivered some movies of which you've most certainly heard. You know, little titles such as "2012," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Independence Day."

Considering those were all big-budget disaster flicks, I'm guessing many a snarky film reviewer and maybe even some film fans would joke that having that director helm a drama about Shakespeare, his contemporaries, Queen Elizabeth and the rest of the Tudors would most certainly have to be a disaster of its own kind. After all, those films, while entertaining to varying degrees, were known more for their special effects and mayhem rather than characters, drama and serious material.

Granted, the latter comes into question for anyone with more than just a passing knowledge of the Bard and the Monarchy of very early 17th century England. As positioned by screenwriter John Orloff, the story starts off interesting and mostly believably enough. But as the plot mechanisms start cranking into high gear and the various threads are all pulled together, historians and other like-minded people might get into some serious fits of eye-rolling, guffawing and such.

Unlike many of my contemporaries, I've never been a full-out Shakespeare fan. Yes, the plots are universal and timeless and the lines and dialogue are lovely, poetic and telling. Yet, whenever I see a play or movie based on the Bard's work, it always takes me a while to warm up to and accept the material. The same holds true here, although the dialogue isn't the issue. Instead, it's that the filmmakers cram so many characters and storylines into the beginning that if you're not a historian, you might need to get out a scorecard to keep track of everyone.

After a while, I finally sorted out everyone -- all while admiring the terrific production work (costumes, set design, artistic design, cinematography, etc.) that's all award caliber -- and then sat back and let the amped up, melodramatic and history distorting antics and such take over. Purists will hate it, and many an everyday viewer will find much of it boring if they have no previous interest in any of the material. For me, it came off as decent but not great escapism featuring solid to strong performances from nearly all of the cast.

That includes Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford who -- the film purports -- was really the scribe behind the famous works while Shakespeare was just a two-bit actor who could read but not write (played by Rafe Spall to comic, opportunistic and then ruthless extent) , something that irritates the heck out of Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) who was originally hand-picked to the stand-in author. The real-life mother/daughter duo of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson play Queen Elizabeth at different ages, while David Thewlis and Edward Hogg embody the father/son advisors to her.

Some may be bothered by the film jumping around through time (the film starts in the present, then goes back to Ben being captured in belief that he has the Bard's works, and then jumps back another 5 years, and then 40, and so on and back and forth) and that does somewhat stymie any sort of building momentum.

As a result, much of the film feels like a collection of decent set pieces that don't really all come together until the end when one character sums up who's who, what's what and such), but do occasionally nicely parallel events that similarly occurred in Shakespeare's works (but only diehard fans will recognize that, and they'll either be amused or infuriated by the re-imagined events and flights of artistic fancy).

All of that said, it's certainly the filmmaker's most accomplished offering to date. And while it's not perfect, the pic certainly makes one hopeful for what else he might be able to deliver in the future. Yet, upon leaving our press screening, I heard somewhat ponder whether Emmerich actually made the film, or just is taking credit for someone else's work. Unleash the conspiracy theorists! "Anonymous" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed October 25, 2011 / Posted October 28, 2011


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