‘Anonymous’: The Will to fame

October 25, 2011


Sprawling, bloody, romantic and witty, Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” (opening Friday 10/28/11) captures the magic of the theater, even as it folds in the swirling panorama of Elizabethan history, political intrigue and the question of the provenance of Shakespeare’s plays. The pen is definitely mightier than the sword in this particular outing.

The question of who wrote “Hamlet” and the rest of the Shakespearean canon is the red herring upon which “Anonymous” is hung. But John Orloff’s script casts a much wider net. By the end, it has blended broad comedy, bloody action, heart-wrenching romance and dark dealings of the royal court into a movie that dashes headlong from start to finish.

The result is itself Shakespearean, full of plot twists, revelations and bursts of violence and betrayal. The politics of the Elizabethan court – as Byzantine as any in British history – provide the kind of crunchy, satisfying substance on which Orloff has built his script. As a character notes early on, “All art is political – or else it would just be decoration.”

Emmerich starts with a bang: An actor (Derek Jacobi) sweeps into a theater’s backstage area, removes his coat, walks onstage as the curtain rises – and starts to tell a story. In seconds, the contrived illusion of a theatrical presentation disappears as the audience is plunged into the roistering world of Elizabethan theater.

The play itself – credited to “Anonymous” for fear of repercussions – is interrupted and its presenter, playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), is taken away, to be tortured by the queen’s top minister for information about who the author of the forbidden play is. Which leads to the bulk of the story – about the bittersweet relationship between Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave as the elder version, daughter Joely Richardson as the queen in her younger years) and Sir Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford.

Which is where the Shakespeare provenance question comes in. Orloff’s script maintains that, in fact, William Shakespeare was an illiterate, hammy actor in the company at the Globe Theater – and that de Vere, an educated and literary nobleman, was actually the author of his plays, an acute observer of the politics of his time. How Shakespeare winds up taking credit for them is part of the larger story.

So, for that matter, is Oxford’s relationship with Elizabeth – both past and present. Secret births, children raised not knowing their true parents (until a climactic revelation), deception, revolution – can you say overstuffed?

And yet what a treat “Anonymous” is. It practically bursts from the screen with energy, pageantry, wit and drama, thanks to Emmerich’s energetic and muscular approach to the material. But despite Emmerich’s past excesses (How many apocalyptic movies has this guy made? I’ve lost count), he seems fully in control of the material here, in all its juicy goodness.

Political intrigue at its most vicious, literary aspirations and commercial concerns, a tangled web of romantic involvements and jealousies: Emmerich and Orloff swirl them all together into a heady mix that may have your head spinning – but in a good way. It is like some weird cinematic collage that samples the two Cate Blanchett films about Elizabeth, as well as the Helen Mirren version – with a variety of other references thrown in for good measure.

Ifans, so often a comic sidekick or foil in films, sweeps through this movie, playing Oxford as a romantic hero of heart-breaking sensitivity and galvanizing intelligence. He’s up against strong opposites, including David Thewlis and Edward Hogg as William and Robert Cecil, ministers to the queen and brutal puritans fighting against the magic of theater and poetry. Redgrave and Richardson play two different sides of Elizabeth: Richardson the full-blooded, headstrong young queen; Redgrave the more delusional, damaged older version. Armesto makes Jonson a distinctly human character – smart, envious, weak. And Rafe Spall does a brash comic turn as Shakespeare himself, a man who is canny, if not self-aware.

“Anonymous” is a blast of entertainment, an alternative-history lesson that sometimes reaches an almost-fulsome level of sumptuousness. This is high-calorie movie-making – but that richness leads to a surprisingly satisfying film.

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