There are great moments in Anonymous, from its arresting opening scene (with Derek Jacobi rushing into a Broadway theater and striding directly onstage) to recreations of the first performances ever given of Henry V and Hamlet before a spellbound throng of groundlings. I, too, was captivated during those thrilling scenes, which is why it’s so frustrating that Anonymous nearly drowns itself in a sea of confusion.
Because no one wants to tell a story in chronological order any more, this saga hopscotches back and forth through three separate time periods (not counting the modern-day framing device with Jacobi). I know this because we see David Thewlis as Queen Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil in three different makeups: as a middle-aged man, then older, then elderly. It’s easy to keep track of the Queen because she’s played in the two later stages of life by the magnificent—
—Vanessa Redgrave, and as a young woman by Redgrave’s real-life daughter Joely Richardson.
If only the rest of the film and its dramatis personae were that clear!
Rhys Ifans plays Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who arranges for his plays to be produced on stage, where they are credited to a somewhat screwloose actor named Will Shakespeare, played with brio by Rafe Spall. This is not the Earl’s doing, as his choice for “front man” is struggling playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), but that’s one of the film’s many twists.
The question of who may have actually written the Great Bard’s works would seem to offer enough fodder to fuel a compelling story, but John Orloff places his (apparently well-researched) material within a larger, more labyrinthine historical drama involving complex court intrigues, affairs of the heart, and the fate of illegitimate children so detailed—and ultimately, confounding—that the movie nearly sinks under its own weight. What a shame.
Director Roland Emmerich, who’s best known for such apocalyptic epics as Independence Day and 2012, has done an excellent job of recreating 17th century England and making us feel as if we’re there, whether we’re watching men carefully walk on planks to avoid the muddy streets or witnessing the first utterances of the immortal characters from Romeo and Juliet on an open-air stage. (Vast overhead shots of London, especially those showing the Globe Theater, are so realistic that I find them vexing—like watching a magician perform an “impossible” trick and concentrating on how he did it rather than enjoying the illusion.)
But vivid atmosphere and fine performances can’t salvage this long, ultimately ponderous production. If only the script had been simplified—perhaps I should say clarified—and shortened this could have been a smashing film. Instead, it’s a major disappointment.