Film festivals are always filled with “passion projects.” Films that directors, producers or screenwriters have spent years or even decades trying to get made. This year’s festival season has more then recent memory including Glenn Close scripted “Albert Nobbs” and David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” which playwright Christopher Hampton has been trying to get made for over 15 years. A more peculiar entry to that club debuted this afternoon at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival in the Roland Emmerich revisionist thriller “Anonymous.”
A curious detour from his usual end of the world genre flicks, Emmerich has tried to get the Elizabethan era period piece made since at least 2006. As he cobbled up enough financing for it he ended up continuing his blockbuster run with “The Day After Tomorrow,” “10,000 B.C.” and “2012.” Many critics or moviegoers may wince at the idea of Emmerich fashioning a tale centered around the creation of Shakespeare’s greatest works (subtly has hardly been his strong suit), but it soon becomes apparent he’s not the problem with the picture nor why it took so long to get produced. Simply, the screenplay by John Orloff centers on such a ridiculous scenario that no performance or direction can save it from the whole concept being just plain silly.
“Anonymous” takes the conceit that Shakespeare never wrote his famous plays, but instead was the frontman for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, played by an almost unrecognizable Rhys Ifans. The artistically inclined De Vere, it seems, has been blackmailed by the infamous William Cecil (David Thewlis) advisor to Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and also his father-in-law, from ever putting his name on his works or writing in public (Cecil believes theater is a sin in the eyes of god). Itching for the world to hear his work, de Vere approaches middlebrow playwright Ben Foster (relative newcomer Sebastian Armesto) be the “name” on his plays (plus he gets paid for it). At least that’s the plan until the charismatic and overbearing actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) decides to steal the credit (although, to be fair, Foster was hardly enthusiastic about the “job”). As “Shakespeare” becomes more popular over the years, de Vere is able to enjoy his success as his own. Unfortunately, Orloff has concocted a grand and completely unbelievable conspiracy that ties in de Vere, Cecil, Cecil’s hunchback heir Robert (Edward Hogg ready to race up and ring Notre Dame’s bells), the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), the Earl of Southhampton (Xavier Samuel) and a long lost romance centered around the Queen.
In theory, Emmerich and Orloff could have fashioned an entertaining thriller, but within 20 minutes the entire picture’s storyline has become completely implausible. Shakespeare is played as such a dufus, such a braggart, such a fool, such a 16th century frat boy that it’s impossible that anyone would ever believe he could write a letter let alone pen some of the greatest tomes in the English language. It’s simply ludicrous and makes the entire movie mostly a joke. And I won’t spoil it here, but an unnecessary “revelation” to de Vere at the end of the picture is stunningly even more ridiculous.
Among the actors, Ifans does his best to give de Vere a soul, but most of the ensemble can’t elevate the melodramatic nature of the material. The only one who escapes with her dignity completely intact is Redgrave. We’ve seen a lot of different version of the Virgin Queen over the past 20 years on screen and on television. From Cate Blanchett in both “Elizabeth” features to Judi Dench’s Oscar winning cameo in “Shakespeare in Love” to Helen Mirren’s calculating queen in the HBO mini-series “Queen Elizabeth I,” but Redgrave give us something else entirely. Her Elizabeth, in the final years of her life, is slowly losing her mind as dementia creeps in. One moment she’s aware of both Cecils devious scheming and another she’s bordering on insanity. It’s a finely nuanced performance that only helps to put the spotlight on just how obvious and bombastic the rest of the picture is.
On one last positive note, Emmerich and his crew (including notable costumes by Lisy Christl) make the approximately $30 million picture look like it cost closer to $100 million. And yes, that’s a compliment of some sort.
“Anonymous” opens nationwide on Oct. 28.