film review: Anonymous (2011)

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Anonymous 2011 poster - Roland EmmerichI’ve never been a poet.

I waffle about films here on this site but I’ve never actually thought about the structure of prose, never mind spared a thought for the rhythm of writing. Like most people I know, I had to read poetry in school but I don’t think I’ve ever read poetry for pleasure.

It follows that, for me, Roland Emmerich was probably the perfect person to make a film about the most famous poet and playwright of them all… William Shakespeare.

My knowledge of Shakespeare is… forgive the pun, shaky. I had to read a few of the plays in school. I liked King Lear, I have a vague memory of The Taming of the Shrew. I can’t remember any of the other ones. Oh, wait, I remember I liked the movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m aware of many of his works but I know little about the man himself. I certainly wasn’t entirely aware that there was any real controversy over who he was.

Now, I’m sure there’s already someone reading this thinking –

But there isn’t any real controversy! Ronald Emmerich is just giving credence to a crazy fringe theory!“.

Well, maybe he is… but like it or not Anonymous is bringing that fringe theory to the masses and that’ll make the controversy real in some people’s minds. Personally, I don’t know enough about Shakespeare or 16th century political and social history to have any opinion about it at all, beyond this – Who knows what really happened back then, and does it really matter that much?

Course, that is the crux of the problem I always have when greeted with a film that paints itself in any historical colours. I never ever know what’s real and what’s not. It makes me feel stupid. I can either accept that it’s all fiction or spend ages later trying to pick apart the true history. Which will invaribly lead to opposing viewpoints, all of which will oddly come up sparse when answering the criticisms of the other.

I decided to view Anonymous as a kind of an alternate history film. Which I think is fair. And to be fair to the film. I don’t think it pushes the “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” thing as far as it could have. It is, after all, a Ronald Emmerich film and I think he’s tried to keep it quite accessible. I didn’t feel like I was being proselytised at. It’s just a film about a guy, and some other guys. I suppose it really depends on how you look at it. It is, technically, a biography of the person who they are presenting as Shakespeare, but that’s not the same as an argument in my book. It’s not evidence, it’s just a story.

In case you were wondering. I liked it. I wasn’t particularly expecting to. I’ve always enjoyed Emmerich’s films on a very basic level. I continue to be in awe of the fact that he brought to the big screen, the scene where a plane flies under a train that was falling through mid-air as the world collapsed around them. That was some kind of genius. But nothing in his other films that I’ve seen ever suggested that he could make a good drama using, you know, plot and dialogue.

I would even go so far as to say it was very good. I thought it was strong political drama, complete with back-stabbing, illicit romance and moral ambiguity. Sure, the intrigue was a little outlandish and unbelievable, but then again it always is. There are always the broadstroke heroes and villains in politics, even as every political film tries to make us see that even noble men have to get dirty sometimes. Of course, we can’t believe them. Whatever happens, you always have to choose one over the others… But I disgress.

In addition to, what I thought was a strong plot and good pacing and scripting, there was the overall production. I think that’s what I enjoyed most about this film. It is a gorgeous looking film. The costumes were fantastic, the stagecraft of the plays put on in the film was amazing. Now yes, this is a movie, but it didn’t look as though there was much, if any, trickery involved. Indeed, they did apparently build a full scale replica of The Rose theatre for the film so, perhaps it was real. It managed to bring the era to life, even if it did look a bit cleaner than things probably were back then.

I thought the performances were generally strong as well. Rhys Ifans was excellent. He’s never impressed me before, I always thought he was a bit one-note… but this kind of, slightly melodramatic role, suited him. There was a sadness in his eyes that suggested more skill than I had previously given him credit for. Fair play.

Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave also shone in their joint portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. They and Ifans even managed to elicit a couple of tears from me…. I may have just been in the mood though.

Sebastian Armesto (playing Ben Jonson) on the other hand seemed to be suffering from a touch of the Batman voice at the start. He was more than a little out of his depth in those first scenes, but he managed to get it on track.

If I am to criticise at all, then I have to be honest – following all the different names was a bit confusing at the start. All the noblemen seemed to have three names. Which I suppose they did, their title, their family name and their first names, but it was more than a little annoying. The on-going mental cataloguing was distracting and jarred me out of the film. That’s small criticism though… if you want to really criticise there’s the biggie…

I had a quick look at the list of historical inaccuracies on Wikipedia article. There are plenty of things out of place. Surprise, surprise.

Honestly though, I really don’t think it matters. Believing exactly what you see in a film is the same as believing whatever some crackpot on the street tells you without question. I don’t think film-makers have any responsibility to make historically accurate films and, given that they are generally out to either, make the film they want to make and/or entertain the masses, you can’t expect them to feel any. If you want to know the truth then go and try to find some primary or secondary source material.

Your local multiplex is not, generally, a place of learning.


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