A word to the wise: there is little point in seeing Anonymous as a faithful depiction of British literary history, or any sort of history full stop. Its use of the theory that William Shakespeare was merely a boasting actor without any literary talent who put up a front for the work of Elizabethan nobleman Edward de Vere should be construed only as a narrative device to allow for a deliciously old-fashioned slab of pseudo-historical court intrigue, at the same level of Shakespeare in Love or Hollywood's historical pageants from the halcyon studio days. Which is to say: this is no more than high-grade hokum meant as spectacle not history, and as such stellarly presented by a director I've never seen less blustery and more quiet as here.
German disaster movie veteran Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) has never put plausibility very high in his list of necessary elements, and whether he believes or not in the often debunked theory of Shakespeare as a mere front is irrelevant to this handsomely mounted period romance, shifting effortlessly between three different time-frames cleverly bookended as a play being performed in a NYC theatre, introduced by Derek Jacobi. Key to the tale is De Vere's (Rhys Ifans) desire to depose royal counsel Sir William Cecil (Edward Hogg), avoid King James of Scotland to take up the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) and thus take his revenge on the family that tutored him since the early death of his father, the Earl of Oxford, and gradually denied him his love of life, poetry and women.
Of course, people might be shocked to see such respected British actors in the cast, but it is also their commitment and professionalism in what looks like a slumming turn that makes Anonymous such an enjoyable moment of Hollywood silliness. And Shakespeare's power, regardless of whoever wrote the words, remains undimmed, especially since the recreation of the plays' theatrical performances in a handsomely fake Elizabethan London is stunning, both in execution and performance, in what is probably the greater surprise of the film. Mr. Emmerich might not be be able to extend those theatrical recreations successfully into a feature length, but there is here a general competence and efficiency in the building blocks of a film that suggest the German director is more than just the soulless hack we've thought him to be all this time. Which, nevertheless, doesn't make the film any more than an entertainingly disposable time-passer.
Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg; Mark Rylance; Derek Jacobi.
Director, Roland Emmerich; writer, John Orloff; music, Thomas Wander, Harald Kloser; director of photography (colour, prints by DeLuxe, widescreen), Anna J. Foerster; production designer, Sebastian Krawinkel; costume designer, Lisy Christl; film editor, Peter R. Adam; visual effects supervisors, Volker Engel, Marc Weigert; producers, Mr. Emmerich, Larry Franco, Robert Leger (Columbia Pictures in association with Relativity Media, Centropolis Entertainment in association with Studio Babelsberg, Anonymous Pictures, Vierzehnte Babelsberg, Siebente Babelsberg and Achte Babelsberg), USA/Germany, 2011, 130 minutes. (US distributor and world sales, Sony Pictures Entertainment.)
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, Lisbon, November 25th 2011.