365) Anonymous (2011) Dir: Roland Emmerich Date Released: October 28, 2011 Date Seen: September 15, 2011 Rating: 1.5/5
This piece got killed. But that's ok, here it is anyway.
With Anonymous, Roland Emmerich, the director of such titanic blunders as 2012 and 10,000 BC, proves once again that he can make a terrible film regardless of its subject. Emmerich’s latest folly is a brain-dead melodrama about the secret life of the Earl of Oxford, a prominent nobleman who some scholars argue was really responsible for penning William Shakespeare’s plays.
Of the egregiously misleading assumptions that Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff make, the biggest one is actually a garden-variety tenet of contemporary biopics. Anonymous uses a tacky and sordid doomed romance to get viewers to appreciate the emotional depths from which such archetypal works like Hamlet and Macbeth sprang from. Emmerich and Orloff have cast Shakespeare in a new light based on their own dimwitted understanding of his plays so that Shakespeare now behaves as a Shakespearean protagonist, many of which imagine themselves are mere play things for the Gods, might. The problem with that scenario is that, if Anonymous is any indication, these guys don’t have a clue about what a Shakespearian protagonist is like.
Anonymous is a tragedy about writing tragedies as rendered by people who confuse soap opera plotting with tragedy. The Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is a Byronic artiste who works on his folios in the privacy of his palatial estate. He fondly recalls the days when he was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and the bane of her puritanical advisers. After years of keeping his writing to himself, Oxford has an epiphany. He decides to release his plays with the help of Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), a young playwright of moderate renown who some real-life scholars also theorize was “the real Shakespeare.”
According to Emmerich and Orloff, Jonson agreed to help Oxford but never took credit for the work. Instead, a young upstart actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) haphazardly stumbled into the spotlight of London’s now-famous Globe Theater. After Shakespeare becomes Oxford’s public figurehead, he inevitably turns too cocky and forces Oxford back into conflict with Elizabeth’s arts-hating ecumenical council. Throw in some incest and baby mama drama and bam, you’ve got Anonymous.
The film’s numerous failings as a drama all come back to Emmerich and Orloff’s incompetence as storytellers. They don’t know how to make a drama — Shakespearean or otherwise — compelling instead of just loud. Emmerich and Orloff liberally use broad symbols for anguish, like the sounds of a baby crying somewhere offscreen while the Globe Theater burns down in the midst of torrential rain, and never hone in on a single recognizably sympathetic trait that might make Oxford a sympathetic martyr.
Emmerich even flaunts his misapprehension of what makes a powerful drama whenever he films actors performing Shakespeare’s plays. In these plays within the film’s play, props and costumes take greater precedence than the puissance of the bard’s verse. Over-emphasizing the lavishness of the Globe Theater’s productions does nothing to shed light on what makes Shakespeare’s plays so enduring. But what would you expect from a film that similarly expects you to find a greater appreciation for Shakespeare’s plays through a tacky speculative meta-narrative about Shakespeare’s real identity? Emmerich should stick to blowing up the world and leave Shakespeare in the hands of dramatists who understand the difference between pure bombast and authentic tragedy.