In Elizabethan England, Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), has written a number of plays with a political bent which he himself cannot openly present. He offers emerging playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) a handsome commission to have his name on them but Johnson is reluctant. When he mentions the offer to his acting acquaintance Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), the latter seizes the opportunity for himself. Meanwhile, the Royal Court is in a flap over issues of the succession to Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), complicated by secret affairs and illegitimate children. At the centre of the power play is the powerful Royal adviser William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg).
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A wonderful hypothetical about the identity of William Shakespeare, Anonymous is incredibly credible, a story of intrigue and facades, all pivoting on the extraordinary writing that we now regard as the work of The Bard. But in this proposition, Shakespeare was an accidental façade for a highly intelligent, well educated, extensively travelled and wealthy son of the oldest titled family in England - Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans).
The delicious appeal of the story is its complex and detailed web of fact-based elements, most notably that the real Will Shakespeare, the actor, was actually almost illiterate and on his death, there was no evidence of him having been a busy, successful writer. Well, that's the controversy, and there will be howls from both sides of the historic divide because Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff build a large political conspiracy into the story of the authorship of plays like Richard III, the king with a hump - a hump that is made famous by the Machiavellian Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg).
Hogg is sensational; his slimy Robert repulses us until near the end of the film, in one of the great scenes that Emmerich pulls off with emotional power, Robert confronts Edward De Vere with the secrets and lies that the Cecils have known all along. We not only see Robert in a new light, we also see Hogg in a new light as an actor of great talent. It's riveting stuff.
Ifans is unrecognisable - and brilliant; it's his best work. Vanessa Redgrave delivers an ageing monarch of extraordinary complexity, vulnerability and insight. She is not a virgin queen in this movie.
David Thewlis, also unrecognisable, finds a whole new level to an already impressive range of roles as William Cecil, the elder whose influence at Court is all pervasive - and he uses it.
The two young Earls, Southampton played by Aussie actor Xavier Samuel and Essex played by Sam Reid, are feisty and credible, while Joely Richardson is a surprising young Elizabeth - in a good way.
The use of CGI to recreate old London for a few wide shots is impressive and helps establish place and time beautifully, while costumes are stunning; not just the lavish ones, either.
There are three quibbles: the time jumps at the beginning of the film are confusing to the point of chaotic; the overtly contemporary speech mannerisms sometimes jar, especially as they crash into the language of the plays; and Rafe Spall is allowed (or encouraged) to overdo Shakespeare as a boorish klutz whose boasts and bravado strike a false note in the context. Although this latter flaw may well be the whole point of this hypothetical ...
Despite these flaws, the film is a compelling piece of cinema, brave and committed, astute and passionate. It is also notable for the unexpected top and tail to the film. Do not miss these beautifully crafted scenes.
And yes, this is that Roland 'Independence Day' Emmerich, who shows he is not a one-note, end-of-the-world movie director but a secret Shakespeare mystery geek.
Published first in the Sun-Herald
Review by Louise Keller:
Power, betrayal, incest and the theatre are the red-hot ingredients of this intriguing and potentially explosive costume drama that offers a thought-provoking scenario about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. For years, the topic has been canvassed: who was Shakespeare? And did he really write the unparalleled library of plays that has enthralled audiences for the past 400 years?
Screenwriter John Orloff, a Shakespeare aficionado, has penned a marvellous conspiracy story with enough twists and turns to put our heads in a spin. The only trouble is, anyone who can follow the first 30 minutes of the plot, must have been polishing the grey matter with advanced Sudoku: it's an unholy mess of complicated situations and jumps in time frame.
Roland Emmerich, who is well used to directing large scale productions in the vein of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, throws all his expertise at the production, and it looks extraordinary. Sebastian Krawinkel's exquisite production design immerses us in the era (the late 16th and early 17th centuries), when corsets are tightly strung, men play women's roles on stage and ladies of the night charge tuppence for a tumble. The depiction of Shakespeare's famous Globe Theatre is marvellous. The bawdy theatre performances and the royal court settings impress through the perceptive lens of cinematographer Anna J. Foerster.
The cast too, is exemplary, spearheaded by Rhys Ifans in his best ever screen role as the Earl of Oxford, who revels in the power of the pen and secretly indulges in his passion to write. The theory is that it is Oxford who has penned the book of Shakespeare's works but that he is unable to put his name to any of them, as plays are considered to be the work of the devil. His inspiration comes by way of voices in his head, which can only be stopped when his thoughts are transferred to parchment.
The legendary 74 year old Vanessa Redgrave is quite moving as the ageing Queen Elizabeth, who is intoxicated by Oxford's words. In a lovely touch of casting, Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson plays the young Queen. These are great roles for actors and Rafe Spall makes a fist of the uncouth, opportunist actor Will Shakespeare, with David Thewlis and Sam Reid effective as the manipulative, villainous William Cecil, advisor to the Queen and the handsome Earl of Essex respectively. Watch out for Australian rising star Xavier Samuel, who is outstanding as the Earl of Southampton.
My lament, to use terminology that might have been used in Shakespeare's day, is that the film is an opportunity lost, on account of the jumbled, convoluted storyline that had me confused, frustrated and mentally scrambling to keep abreast of every detail.
Having said that, I must quickly add that the final riveting 45 minutes when everything comes together, makes the journey more than worthwhile. I could write so much more about the film, its ideas, its characters, the history and what might have been. Suffice to say, this is a film worthy of discussion and one that lovers of history, theatre and the power of prose will embrace.
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CAST: Vanessa Redgrave, Rhys Ifans, Xavier Samuel, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Rafe Spall, Mark Rylance, Vicky Krieps, Edward Hogg, Derek Jacobi
PRODUCER: Roland Emmerich, Larry J. Franco, Robert leger,
DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich
SCRIPT: John Orloff
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Anna Foerster
EDITOR: Peter R. Adam
MUSIC: Herald Kloser, Thomas Wander
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sebastian T. Krawinkel
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 3, 2011