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Put that in one of your plays!

Anonymous
(2011)

Roland Emmerich tends to get a rough ride for his endless appetite for lowbrow, overblown action/disaster fare. But now, his chance to prove the critics wrong! I haven't minded his movies too much, even the hilariously stupid-by-his-own-standards 10,000 BC. He deserves some credit for being one of the few directors working today who shows an understanding of geography in action movies, and also one of the few who has an eye for lending special effects a sense of physicality. If only he could bring that acumen to a decent script.

John Landis and Terry Gilliam (who has discussed the director in the past, mainly with regard to the debt his style owes to Spielberg) riffed on his latest film in the excerpt below. Landis also singles out John Cusack outdriving the San Andreas fault in 2012, and it is indeed one of the funniest, most ludicrous scenes in recent memory (anyone, Landis included, wondering how unaware Emmerich was of his mirth-inducing potential should note the old lady Cusack tries to overtake).

As for Anonymous, visually it's as sumptuous as you'd expect. And as a conspiracy movie it is engaging, if "kitchen sink" in trying to trace as much political intrigue of the Elizabethan court as possible back to "real" Shakespeare's door. Or, rather, the Earl of Oxford's. But the script comes up short in a number of respects, chief of which is a lack of wit. Indeed, the results are sometimes unintentionally hilarious, such as Oxford's wife's scornful pleasure in the misfortune of her husband. "Put that in one of your plays!" she mocks. Shakespeare in Love worked so well because it weaved the playwright's work humorously and intelligently into its plot; a love of the material shone through in the characters and dialogue. John Orloff's script for Anonymous is populated with characters who lack sparkle and erudition. As a result Emmerich must rely on his cast to breathe life into the story. Orloff also falls victim to a common failing in these sorts of films, imbuing characters with banal foreknowledge of the enduring legacy of the artist's work.

I don't know a great deal about the Oxfordian versus Stratfordian theories on the authorship of the plays, but I agree in principal with Orloff's justification for historical inaccuracy/fudging in the film.

Ultimately, Shakespeare himself was our guide. The Shakespeare histories are not really histories. They're dramas. He compresses time. He adds characters that have been dead by the time the events are occurring. He'll invent characters out of whole cloth, like [Sir John] Falstaff in the history plays. First and foremost it's a drama, and just like Shakespeare we're creating drama.

It is rather setting yourself up for failure to put yourself in the same ballpark of success with approach as the Bard, however. What is most important is how well the created drama works. While the main plot threads involving drunken actor William Shakespeare assuming the identity of author of the plays and machinations over who will inherit the throne from Elizabeth are engaging, the flashbacks to the relationship between the younger Oxford and Elizabeth stumble. This element was at Emmerich's instigation, who felt they were needed to give a grounding for both characters. I suspect there could have been better ways to achieve this, but the problem is more that there too prevalent and add too little. There's also rather too much of Ben Johnson raging over what a tosser Shakespeare is being. We got the message quite quickly.

Thesps-wise, Rhys Ifans is very good as Oxford. He's been cast against type to an extent, but the actor's innate unconventionality is well-served playing a more refined character than he's used to. In contrast, doe-eyed Jamie Campbell Bower is a vacant presence as the younger Oxford. He's as miscast as he was as Arthur in Camelot. Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson are affecting as Elizabeth of different ages, but the former is most compelling. Rafe Spall's unremittingly loutish Shakespeare is at times quite amusing, but Spall plays these oafish types so frequently that I'm beginning to think he may just be playing himself. A number of relative newcomers also turned in accomplished performances. Sebastian Armesto gives it his best as Ben Johnson even if the character is one-note at times. All-but stealing the film is Edward Hogg as hunchbacked Robert Cecil. He reminded me slightly of Christopher Guest's Count Rugen in The Princess Bride, both in manner and appearance. Oh, and Derek Jacobi bookends the film. Seemingly as himself. If Derek Jacobi tells you something about Shakespeare, it must be true.

***


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