Monday, 20 February 2012

Anonymous (2011)

Anonymous is a political thriller and pseudo-historical drama film which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2011. Directed by Roland Emmerich and written by John Orloff, the movie is a fictionalized version of the life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, an Elizabethan courtier, playwright, poet and patron of the arts. Starring Rhys Ifans (de Vere) and Vanessa Redgrave (Queen Elizabeth I), Anonymous utilizes emerging VFX CG technology to recreate exterior period backgrounds in and around old London, circa 1550–1604.

Set within the political atmosphere of the Elizabethan court, the film presents Lord Oxford as the true author of Shakespeare's plays, and dramatizes events leading to the succession of Queen Elizabeth I and the Essex Rebellion against her. De Vere is depicted as a literary prodigy and the Queen's sometime lover, with whom he sires a son, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, only to discover that he himself may be the Queen's son by an earlier lover. De Vere eventually sees his suppressed plays performed through a frontman (Shakespeare), using his production of Richard III to support a rebellion led by his son and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. The insurrection fails, and as a condition for sparing the life of their son, the Queen declares that de Vere will never be known as the author of his plays and poems.

Produced by Centropolis Entertainment and Studio Babelsberg and distributed by Columbia Pictures, Anonymous was released on October 28, 2011, in 265 theatres in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, expanding to movie theatres around the world, in the following weeks. Critical comment has been mixed, praising its performances and visual achievements, but criticizing the film's time-jumping format and the filmmakers' promotion of the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship.

The Plot

After a theatrical prologue delivered by Derek Jacobi, the film opens with Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, ordering a desperate search for a trove of manuscripts. Ben Jonson, who has the manuscripts, hides them in the Globe theatre, but it is burned down while being searched. Successive flashbacks cast us back five and then forty years, as the film evokes the reputed life of Edward de Vere from childhood through to his entanglement in an insurrection, and later on to his death.

The main action takes place towards the end of the Elizabethan era as political intrigue flourishes between the Tudors and the Cecils (father William and son Robert), over the succession to Queen Elizabeth I. In flashbacks, de Vere is portrayed as a prodigious genius, writing at eight or nine years of age (1558/1559) A Midsummer Night's Dream, de Vere acting the role of Puck before the young queen Elizabeth. He is then forced to live in the repressive, puritanical house of William Cecil where, years later, he kills a spying servant lurking behind an arras, much like the death of Polonius in Hamlet. William Cecil uses this murder to blackmail de Vere into a loveless marriage with his daughter, Anne Cecil, compelling him also to renounce literature. De Vere later becomes the Queen's lover, and sires - unknown to him - an illegimate son; the son is adopted, becoming Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, but his true parentage is hidden from all but the Cecils.

De Vere must struggle against a taboo that would forbid him to write; against his wife's impatience with his literary work as a dishonour to her family; and against the Queen's counsellors. Foremost among these is his father-in-law William Cecil, who is convinced that theatres are sinful. Cecil's plan to have James, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots crowned king is also threatened by the presence of de Vere's and the Queen's child, who would be an alternative contender for the throne, and also of pure Tudor lineage.

Almost four decades after his private première, de Vere visits a public theatre and is deeply impressed by the way spectators can be swayed. Much taken by the propagandistic power of art, considering that "all art is political ... otherwise it is just decoration," de Vere decides to employ his secretly written plays for the promotion of the Earl of Essex's cause (Essex being another of the Queen's illegitimate sons) over the candidate preferred by the Cecils, writing Henry V and, later, Richard III as propaganda designed to foment revolution. He contacts Ben Jonson, who had been confined in the Tower of London on charges of sedition until de Vere uses his influence to free him, in order to have his play Henry V staged under Jonson's name. The plan backfires when an unscrupulous young actor, William Shakespeare, steps up on stage and claims authorship, Jonson having shrunk from passing himself off as the author after a riot on the play's opening night. It is this "drunken oaf" who takes on the role as de Vere's front man, while Jonson becomes de Vere's only confidant in the truth.

Shakespeare however, having discovered the real author's identity, extorts money from de Vere to build the Globe theatre, and wangles £400 per year for posturing as a front. After Christopher Marlowe stumbles on the truth that Shakespeare's inexplicable talents hide the genius of another hand, he is found with his throat slit. Jonson later confronts Shakespeare and accuses him of the murder.

At the climax, de Vere uses the play Richard III as a thinly veiled attack on the hunchbacked Robert Cecil. The plan is to incite a mob to march against Cecil, and thus weaken his position at court. At the same time, Essex is to march with the Earl of Southampton to the Palace, to promote his own claim to the succession. However the plan fails, as a jealous Jonson betrays the plot to Cecil, who guns down the mob, stopping it from joining Essex. The Queen, swayed by Cecil, thinks that Essex is trying to depose of her violently. Cecil easily captures Essex and Southampton, who are condemned for treason.

Robert Cecil then tells a broken de Vere that Elizabeth had other bastard sons - one of which was de Vere himself. If true, it would mean that de Vere committed incest with his mother. In order to save his son from being beheaded, de Vere writes Venus and Adonis to remind the Queen of their love. She agrees to save Southampton, but insists that de Vere remain anonymous as the true author of 'Shakespeare's' works.

After the Queen's death, James succeeds, though Cecil's hopes of a more puritanical regime are shattered when James expresses his wish to see more of Shakespeare's work. Shakespeare retires on his ill-gotten gains to Stratford to become a businessman, and de Vere dies in 1604, having commended his manuscripts to the care of a repentant Ben Jonson. Cecil however still wants the manuscripts destroyed. With the destruction of the Globe, he believes them burnt, but Jonson later discovers they have survived. Nevertheless, the 'truth' that Edward de Vere, not the nearly illiterate Shakespeare, is their real author remains concealed.


The film received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 46% of 151 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 5.4 out of 10. Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 50 based on 40 reviews. The film grossed almost $6.7 million in its first three weeks. Audiences gave it an A- rating in its first weekend of limited release.

Rex Reed regards Anonymous as "one of the most exciting on-screen literary rows since Norman Mailer was beaten with a hammer," and well worth the stamina required to sit out what is an otherwise exhausting film. Not only Shakespeare's identity, but also that of Queen Elizabeth, the 'Virgin Queen' is challenged by Orloff's script, which has her as "a randy piece of work who had many lovers and bore several children." Visually, the film gives us a "dazzling panorama of Tudor history" which will not bore viewers. It boasts a cast of pure gold, and its "recreation of the Old Globe, the fame that brought ruin and dishonor to both Oxford and the money-grubbing Shakespeare, and the sacrifice of Oxford's own property and family fortune to write plays he believed in against a background of danger and violence make for a bloody good yarn, masterfully told, lushly appointed, slavishly researched and brilliantly acted." He adds the caveats that it does play "hopscotch with history", has a bewildering and confusing cast of characters and is jumpy in its timeframes.

Michael Phillips for the Chicago Tribune writes that the film is ridiculous but not dull. Displaying a "rollicking belief in its own nutty bombast" as "history is simultaneously being made up and rewritten," its best scenes are those of the candle-lit interiors caught by the Alexa digital camera on a lovely copper-and-honey-toned palette. After a week, what remains in Phillips' memory is not the de Vere/Shakespeare conspiracy theory but "the way Redgrave gazes out a window, her reign near the end, her eyes full of regret but also of fiery defiance of the balderdash lapping at her feet."

Roger Ebert finds Orloff's screenplay "ingenious," Emmerich's direction "precise", and the cast "memorable". Though "profoundly mistaken", Anonymous is "a marvellous historical film," giving viewers "a splendid experience: the dialogue, the acting, the depiction of London, the lust, jealousy and intrigue." That said, he rounds off, he must "tiresomely insist that Edward de Vere did not write Shakespeare's plays."

Kirk Honeycutt ranked it as Emmerich's best film, with a superb cast of British actors, and a stunning digitally-enhanced recreation of London in Elizabethan times. The film is "glorious fun as it grows increasingly implausible", for the plot "is all historical rubbish," Damon Wise, reviewing the film for the Guardian, appraises Emmerich's 'meticulously crafted' and 'stunningly designed takedown of the Bard,' as shocking only in that it is rather good. Emmerich's problem, he argues, is that he was so intent on proving his credentials as a serious director that the film ended up 'drowned in exposition.' Orloff's screenplay heavily confuses plotlines; the politics are retrofitted to suit the theory. The lead roles are 'unengaging' but special mention is given to Edward Hogg's performance as Robert Cecil, and Vanessa Redgrave's role as Elizabeth.

Robert Koehler, writing for Variety, reads the film as an 'illustrated argument' of an 'aggressively promoted and more frequently debunked' theory, and finds it less interesting than the actors who play a role in, or endorse, it. Narrative cogency is strained by the constant switches in time signature, and the imbroglio of Shakespeare and Jonson squabbling publicly over claims to authorship is both tiresome and 'veers close to comedy'; indeed it is superfluous given Ifans's commanding and convincing acting as the 'real' Shakespeare. The supporting cast of actors is praised for fine performances, except for Spall's Shakespeare, who is 'often so ridiculous that the "Stratfordians" will feel doubly insulted.' Sebastian Krawinkel's 'ambitious and gorgeous production design' comes in for special mention, as does Anna J. Foerster's elegant widescreen lensing. The score however fails their standards.

Kristopher Tapley champions the film, finding that Orloff has spun 'a fascinating yarn'. Ifans gives a stunning performance, and Spall's Shakespeare provides delightful comic relief. The film is 'gorgeous' and Tapley agrees with a colleague's judgement that "people will likely look back to Anonymous as the tipping point of what you can really do with digital in a next-level kind of way".'

David Denby, reviewing for the New Yorker, writes of Emmerich's "preposterous fantasia", where confusion reigns as to which of the virgin queen's illegitimate children is Essex and which Southampton, and where it is not clear what the connection is between the plot to hide the authorship of the plays and the struggle to find a successor to the officially childless Elizabeth. He concludes that, "The Oxford theory is ridiculous, yet the filmmakers go all the way with it, producing endless scenes of indecipherable court intrigue in dark, smoky rooms, and a fashion show of ruffs, farthingales, and halberds. The more far-fetched the idea, it seems, the more strenuous the effort to pass it off as authentic."

James Lileks, in the Star Tribune review, noting favourable responses, including one where a critic wondered if Emmerich had anything to do with it, says the devious message must be that a shlock-merchant like Emmerich wasn't involved, but, like the film plot itself, must conceal the hand of some more experienced filmmaker, whose identity will be much debated for centuries to come. Reviewing for Associated Press, Christy Lemire commends Rhys Ifans' performance as "flamboyant, funny, sexy" in an otherwise heavy-handed and clumsy film, whose script "jumps back and forth in time so quickly and without rhyme or reason, it convolutes the narrative." A "flow chart" is perhaps needed to keep track of all of the sons, and sons of sons. The "blubbering" about the brilliance of Shakespeare's works is repetitive, and upstages the initial whiff of scandal, giving the impression that the film is "much ado about nothing.".

For A.O. Scott, writing for the New York Times, Anonymous is "a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination". Yet, a fine cast manages to "burnish even meretricious nonsense with craft and conviction," and one is "tempted to suspend disbelief, even if Mr. Emmerich finally makes it impossible. ." Lou Lumenick, writing for the New York Post, writes that the movie "is a thoroughly entertaining load of eye candy with solid performances, even if John Orloff’s exposition-heavy script practically requires a concordance to follow at times." For the Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey, "the less you know about Shakespeare, the more you’re likely to enjoy Anonymous." Ingenuity is wasted on an "unintelligent enterprise", that of arguing that people of humble origins cannot outwrite blue-bloods. Emmerich's CGI effects are well-done, but it is amazing just to watch an "actor on a bare wooden stage, using nothing but a sequence of words that make your scalp prickle."

Andrea Chase in Killer Movie Reviews rates Anonymous as "superb", dwelling on Orloff's rich script, which has "done an excellent job of fitting the known facts to the thesis on offer", on Emmerich's dramatic flair and the wonderful supporting cast. It is somewhat spoiled by Ifans's leaden presence, which betrays nothing of "the ribald temper to be found in the plays." By contrast, Spall's Shakespeare, "preening with the narcissist's elan of a confirmed ham, lights up the screen."

Louise Keller for Urban Cinefile admires the "thought-provoking scenario" of Orloff's "marvellous conspiracy story", though its "twists and turns" are headspinning: "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." Despite the exemplary cast, exquisite production design and extraordinary look, Emmerich has lost an opportunity to make more of it, "on account of the jumbled, convoluted storyline that had me confused, frustrated and mentally scrambling to keep abreast of every detail," though everything falls together in the final 45 minutes.

Anonymous has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for German Costume Designer Lisy Christl's work. At the Satellite Awards, the film was nominated in two categories including Best Art Direction (and Production Design) for Stephan O. Gessler and Sebastian T. Krawinkel, and Best Costume Design for Lisy Christl. Vanessa Redgrave is nominated for Best British Actress of the Year at the London Film Critics Circle Awards for Anonymous and Coriolanus. Results will be known on January 19, 2012. The film also received a nomination from the Art Directors Guild for Period Film, honouring Production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel. Results will be known on February 4, 2012.

The Cast

Rhys Ifans as Earl of Oxford
 Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I
 Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson
 Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare
 David Thewlis as William Cecil
 Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil
 Xavier Samuel as Earl of Southampton
 Sam Reid as Earl of Essex
 Jamie Campbell Bower as Young Earl of Oxford
 Joely Richardson as Young Queen Elizabeth I
 Paolo De Vita as Francesco
 Trystan Gravelle as Christopher Marlowe
 Robert Emms as Thomas Dekker
 Tony Way as Thomas Nashe
 Julian Bleach as Captain Richard Pole
 Derek Jacobi as Prologue
 Alex Hassell as Spencer
 James Garnon as Heminge
 Mark Rylance as Condell
 Jasper Britton as Pope
 Michael Brown as Sly
  John Keogh as Philip Henslowe
 Lloyd Hutchinson as Richard Burbage
 Vicky Krieps as Bessie Vavasour
 Helen Baxendale as Anne De Vere
 Paula Schramm as Bridget De Vere
 Amy Kwolek as Young Anne De Vere

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