Directed by Roland Emmerich.
Starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Sebastion Armesto,Jamie Cambell Bower
First of all, I feel like I should put a disclaimer here that says that I will NOT be basing this review on the movie's historical accuracy. No, the movie is not accurate. No, it does not present convincing evidence that Edward De Vere wrote the plays of Shakespeare. I feel this is irrelevant. If you are very protective of Shakespeare, than this fact might be just enough to prevent you from enjoying it. But I am not writing that sort of review.
The plot is misleadingly simple - At the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, there is a intense struggle about who will succeed the childless ruler. King James, son of Mary Queen of Scots (otherwise known as Bloody Mary) is the preferred candidate by the Cecil family whom are employed as Elizabeth's advisers. Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford and a young ward of the royal house, is pushing for the Earl of Essex to succeed Elizabeth because it is common knowledge (in the film) that Essex is actually Elizabeth's son. De Vere decides that the best way to convince Elizabeth that the choice of the puritanical Cecil family is not the right one is by reminding her of her youth and her love for plays - a sinful thing, in the Cecil's eyes. "Words will prevail with Elizabeth", he says. The only problem is that an Earl cannot write plays and so De Vere asks Ben Johnson to stage his work for him. Johnson has a moment of ethics and hesitates when it is time to bow to the applause of the first widely accepted performance, and an illiterate actor name William Shakespeare grabs his moment. Thus, history is made (in this movie). What follows is the more of the political maneuvering that many may not be expecting in a movie that presents itself as just being about Shakespeare.
Overall, the plot is purposefully over-dramatic. The movie itself is presented as a play and, in keeping with the tragic turns of Shakespeare himself, it is rife with miscommunication, shocking reveals (maybe one or two a little TOO shocking), and lost dreams.
The directing is both one of the movie's strengths and one of its weaknesses. Emmerich - surprisingly -manages to create a rich atmosphere in individual scenes and really gets the best from the the actors. The level of detail is wonderful and Emmerich does especially well in the theater scenes (harkening back to the play-within-a-play favorite of Shakespeare) by showing how up close and personal the groundlings were to the action on the stage of the Globe and what the theater experience would have been for Elizabethans
Emmerich's cinematography is absolutely breathtaking and it is even more admirable to know that they actually filmed most of this movie in front of greenscreen in Germany. The old England of 'Anonymous' is stylish and downright gorgeous.
On the downside, Emmerich stills seems a little stuck in his bombastic ways and though it doesn't emerge so much in fights or explosions, he can't seem to keep himself from twisting and turning the movie until it is almost impossible to keep up with what is happening. There's even flashbacks within flashbacks and while one could applaud Emmerich for trying to break out of the traditional narrative, he could benefit from a little more restraint.
The acting here is the best aspect of the whole movie, mostly from Rhys Ifans as the man behind Shakespeare's writings. Ifans, who's normally sidelined as the disheveled and drunken sidekick with the funny accent, is actually given a chance to show what he's worth in this role. His voice is literally transformed into a quiet and intense growl of a privileged man who has never had to raise his voice in his life - one can tell that this man's emotions and thoughts are channeled mostly through his writings rather than any verbal communication. This subdued intensity makes his rare moments of outburst even more meaningful and moving, and it is clear Ifans understands that value of contrast within his acting. His movements are both prim and masculine and it makes it easy to believe that beneath all the makeup and tall posture, there is a man who longs to sit and simply write love poems and dramatic plays. There's a flightiness to Ifans' De Vere that any other actor would look ridiculous trying to embody. I can honestly say that he deserves an Academy Award (which, sadly, he will not recieve because of the controversial nature of the movie itself).
Vanessa Redgrave does not have much to work with but does the best she can with role of the older Queen. She's doddering, weak, and easily moved, but you can see remnants of a strong-willed women who has merely forgotten what it is in life that she loves.
Redgrave's real-life daughter, Joely Richardson, plays the younger version of the Queen, who is portrayed as a hot-headed, passionate woman who is no "Virgin" Queen. Richardson overdoes it a little bit, but it fits in with the overall play-like feel of the movie.
Another standout is Edward Hogg as the Cecil son, a bitter hunchback of a man who knows that as soon as Elizabeth dies, his place as adviser (and his power) are threatened and is doing all he can cement his place within the monarchy. At the end of the movie, there is an interesting twist that adds another layer to the character and his resentment of De Vere.
Sebastion Armesto, who plays Ben Johnson, does a fine job as the writer who only sees his own inadequacy in Shakespeare's work. He never applauds after a performance and begins to question his own talent. While this could have been an easy, predictable role, Armesto really shows us the complication of loving something while feeling that its very existence makes you worthless. Throughout the film, as he sits in the Globe and watches the plays of "Shakespeare", you can practically see him thinking I will never be able to write like this and it is breaking his heart.
Jamie Cambell Bower, in an ensemble cast of beautifully performing actors, sticks out as a weak player. He's pouty and pretty and all that, but he needs to break out a little from the sensitive boy-toy role he slides into all too easily.
Overall, I give this movie - despite its weaknesses - 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it to anyone who is willing to suspend disbelief (and isn't easily offended with unflattering depictions of the Bard).
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