Man oh man, English teachers are really going to hate this one. It basically gives credence to all of the half assed conspiracy theories that guy in the back of the room who didn’t do the reading of Hamlet that was assigned would lob at the professor in an attempt to validate his own laziness. Problem is, this is very well constructed and persuasive film, powerful enough to inspire the casual viewer to head home and research the story for themselves. I’m no Shakespearean scholar, so I’m in no position to comment on the validity of the assumptions and revelations the script contains, but it all feels very genuine and honest, a tragedy befitting of the legacy that is Shakespeare’s life work. The film never seeks to present “the real story” but simply a new one, and there’s a lot to admire about the execution.

First and foremost, you have Roland Emmerich. This is a man who has destroyed the world more times and with more visual effects money than most directors bring to bear in their entire careers. With Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, it can’t be denied that the man is the king of the disaster epic, but has also pigeon-holed himself as a bit of a one trick pony. Spoiler alert! Nothing blows up in this film. It just doesn’t occur. This is an Elizabethan era period piece. The most destruction that could be imagined back then was a massive fire, and the script draws every set piece directly from the political intrigue that caused it to occur. The other genius idea in the screenplay is positioning the whole story as a play itself, giving Emmerich the flexibility to push to his usual heights of melodrama, but having it all feel natural in the context of a theatrical production. Therefore all the disparate elements work in service of the whole, and the result is a finely tuned and mostly successful bit of theatrical storytelling.

From a casting standpoint, Rhys Ifans is having a tour de force performance here. He’s been on the verge of breaking out for a very long time, and after watching him here, I couldn’t be more excited about his work as Dr. Conners in the new Spiderman movie. He carries the film, despite the time allotted for flashbacks and B plots, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Maybe he’s one of those actors who really comes alive in period clothing, or maybe he just hasn’t had the best material to showcase his leading man qualities, but he certainly gives it his all and everybody else is scrambling to keep up. Vanessa Redgrave plays the Queen, and manages to imbue her royal highness with some touches we’ve never seen in a monarch performance before. She’s a little bit unhinged here, and you understand how it came to pass as we learn more about her court and the people she surrounds herself with. David Thewlis does a great job as the most villainous character of the bunch, William Cecil, who was responsible, in this version, for convincing the Queen to let her throne pass to John, despite the inevitable instability such a shift would cause. He gets the most variety to play with, acting as both a younger and older version of himself, and maintains a level of honesty and confidence that works to paint him with an all the more terrifying brush.

Despite some rougher patches and a handful of unintentional chuckles, Anonymous is far more satisfying than it should have any right to be. The filmmakers know how to position the narrative to play to their strengths, even while moving into dangerous new territory. The script, not written by the director or his composer, has a lot more interesting stuff to play with than your usual Emmerich crowd-pleaser, and that’s probably why they were able to attach the quality cast they received. A lot of the grunt work comes courtesy of unknown faces, and I can tell you one thing, it’s doubtful that they’ll stay unknown for very long. With the studio backing out of a wide release and aiming for an awards season limited + expansion model, it is evident that they believe the film to be a lot more than just a throwaway project by a bankable director. Whether it garners the accolades they’re looking for or not, it’s still going to go down as one of the more interesting studio exercises in quite some time. The more I think about the film, the more I’ve decided that I enjoyed it, and the fact that I’m still thinking about it in detail speaks volumes about the potential longevity of the material.
A political thriller set at the cusp of the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I, and centered on the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (Ifans), positioned here as the author of William Shakespeare’s plays.