One of the more interesting trailers to come out in some time was that for Anonymous. From nearly any other director it’d be seen as a prestige picture involving Victorian England; when it came out that it was from the same auteur who had unleashed 2012, Independence Day and other big budget blockbusters involving the destruction of international monuments. From Roland Emmerich it seemed to be more of a curiosity than anything else; were we being punked in being given a trailer focusing on a Victorian Era epic discussing a theory about the “true” authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays. Surely a national monument from that era would be destroyed at some point, right? Were we being punked?
Fortunately for us it turned into a brilliant drama that shows that Emmerich can craft a brilliant film out of dramatic material in the same way he can create spectacle at $200 million of destruction.
The film advocates and dramatizes the Oxfordian variant of a long-standing theory that Shakespeare wasn’t the author of the plays and sonnets he’s credited to writing. The film posits the theory that Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford, was a youthful prodigy of the theatre who was unable to be the true author of some of history’s finest work. Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is a useful idiot in this case, a drunken womanizer who is barely literate and a low level actor. The Earl, who tried to funnel it through Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), a burgeoning screenwriter, sees the unlikely actor become a star of the English literary scene using the Earl’s words to get everything he’s ever wanted in life.
Meanwhile Edward uses the machinations of royal life in the court of Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave as the older queen, Joely Richardson in flashbacks) to both influence his writing and to try and use it to change events happening to keep King James of Scotland from taking the throne at the behest of those working against his own interests.
And while it has some significant alterations with history to make it more cinematic, Emmerich has combined what he does so well in disaster level movies with some unexpectedly strong storytelling. And that’s the key: he tells a great story at a near perfect pace. Used to the two hour story-telling mark on a regular basis, he combines a perfect pace with a strong tone to set up a brilliant story. Told mainly through an extended flashback, this is a larger tale about a creative man stuck in a world of nobility he never fit into. Edward is a man who views his ability to write as a gift and no one else does; if he hadn’t been born an Earl he’d have been the best playwright of his time. As such he’s stuck to using servants as middle-men and seeing someone unfit to carry his quill bask in the fame and glory that should be his.
Ifans is perfect in the role. With years of being a character actor under his belt, it’s remarkable to see him step in the lead and carrying the film. This is a powerhouse performance that ought to be rewarded come awards season; Emmerich frames the film and lets him dominate the screen. And that’s a key to Emmerich’s story-telling style; he uses remarkable cinematography. After years of framing shots of massive explosions and disasters, more popcorn than prestige, he uses this to his advantage as this is easily one of the year’s better looking and better shot films. He uses plenty of CGI to recreate the era, of course, but he frames in it such a way that every penny of the story comes through remarkably.
If you’d have said a couple years ago, on the heels of 2012 even, that Roland Emmerich has a brilliant drama in him most ardent film aficionados would probably have laughed. And now the joke’s on them because that’s exactly what he’s done.
Director: Roland Emmerich Notable Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, Edward Hogg, Jamie Campbell Bower Writer(s) John Orloff