Anonymous Review
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Controversy, conspiracy, and historical drama are no strangers to the fall film line-up. After all, this is the time when films start vying for the attention of award voters. A historical drama about a grand Shakespearian conspiracy, then, seems like a perfect fit—until you discover that that historical drama was directed by Roland Emmerich, the guy who’s directed such moving historical dramas as…well…he hasn’t really made any historical dramas (unless you count 10,000 B.C., that is). He has, however, made lots of disaster movies, like Independence Day and 2012. But the severe contrast just makes Anonymous even more of a pleasant surprise.

  
 
For hundreds of years, scholars, historians, and conspiracy theorists have debated whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that have been credited to him. Some suggest that they were actually written by Christopher Marlowe. Or Francis Bacon. Anonymous, meanwhile, suggests that Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the genius behind Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets—and that their release was part of a carefully-planned political plot.

As Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) ages, everyone has an opinion regarding her successor. The queen’s closest advisor, William Cecil (David Thewlis), believes that King James of Scotland would be the best choice, while others believe that the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) deserves the crown.

De Vere favors Essex, choosing to use the written word to stir the British people into action. In order to remain anonymous, de Vere offers the plays to Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), whose ego won’t allow him to take credit. In his place, actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) eagerly steps forward to claim the spotlight.

Anonymous will definitely make you stop and wonder about the true origin of Shakespeare’s works. At the same time, it might also make you stop and wonder about the true origin of director Roland Emmerich’s works. After more than two decades of making brainless disaster movies, it seems entirely unlikely that Emmerich could suddenly turn around and produce such an intricate and captivating historical drama—but that’s exactly what he’s done with Anonymous.

The story takes quite a bit of time to get its bearings, skipping around in time to show de Vere at various points throughout his life. Admittedly, it can be rather confusing at times, but it offers an intriguing new context for Shakespeare’s plays—and it all comes together in a scintillating brew of politics, history, art, and romance, with plenty of grand, dramatic twists along the way.

The characters seem to have walked right out of the Bard’s own plays—from greedy, conceited Shakespeare and the other bitter, backstabbing playwrights to the blatantly sinister Cecils (played by David Thewlis and Edward Hogg) and the haunted de Vere. And the cast couldn’t be much better—especially Ifans, whose passionate performance as de Vere is a wonderful surprise (he’s definitely come a long way from playing Hugh Grant’s creepy roommate in Notting Hill).

Fortunately, you don’t really need to know anything about British history to get the gist of this multi-dimensional drama. Of course, a basic knowledge of Shakespeare’s works doesn’t hurt—or at least it will help you further appreciate screenwriter John Orloff’s carefully-concocted script. But it doesn’t really matter whether you agree with the content. After all, you don’t necessarily need to agree with the hypothesis to appreciate the cleverness of the argument. And Anonymous definitely poses one clever (and highly entertaining) argument—one that’s sure to give you plenty to debate with your lit-loving friends as you leave the theater.

I can only hope that we’ll see more from this Roland Emmerich in the future.


Blu-ray Review:
If watching Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous leaves you eager to learn a little bit more about the film and its controversial topic, you’ll find additional insights on the special features menu of the film’s Blu-ray release.

In addition to the usual extended / deleted scenes, the disc also includes a handful of making-of extras. Those who want to know more about the authorship issue will want to check out Who Is the Real William Shakespeare?, which offers a brief overview of the issue, along with some of the key arguments. Or, if you’d prefer a look behind the scenes of the film, you have a couple of other options. Speak the Speech… takes a close look at each cast member and their characters, while More than Special Effects shows how Emmerich used his love of grand special effects to create Shakespeare’s London on a limited budget. It’s a bit lengthier than necessary, but it’s a fascinating feature nonetheless.

Of course, for the most insights and information, you can look to the commentary track, in which Emmerich and writer John Orloff discuss everything from history to special effects.

All of the featurettes included on the disc offer some interesting insights. But, since I’m intrigued by the authorship debate, I’d recommend starting with Who Is the Real William Shakespeare?

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