Cast: Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), William Cecil (Davis Thewlis), Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), Young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower), Young Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson), Narrator (Derek Jacobi)
Director: Roland Emmerich
Theatrical release: 10/28/2011 DVD Date: 02/07/2012
Rating: PG-13 Running Time: 130 minutes
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Review: I confess, after 10 minutes of Anonymous I was completely lost. So lost I did something I rarely do: I hit the rewind button and started all over again. After 20 minutes I was still completely and utterly lost, so I hit the pause button and got out my computer to do a little background research. Armed with my newfound knowledge, I again started over and this time made it through the entire film … stopping only a few times to look up a historical factoid or two. I'm not sure one needs to be a student of late 16th century English politics and/or William Shakespeare — I am most certainly not — but it no doubt helps. Or maybe not, because I suspect the director and screenwriter took more than a few liberties with history to punch up the storyline here.
I won't try to provide a detailed plot overview as I'd likely get much of it wrong. Suffice it to say that the storyline generally involves a behind-the-scenes plot to name a successor to Queen Elizabeth I, who won't name one herself, and a scheme of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, to influence public opinion through writing plays, something he cannot do under his own name as it is unseemly for a peer to do something so common. The two storylines intersect, but not nearly as often an you might think.
I eventually felt comfortable enough with the film to start to enjoy it, but it took about 70 minutes to get there. The primary problems I had were … (1) The frequent and abrupt time shifts between events taking place in 1570 and those in 1600. I'm guessing a bit on the years, but I think they're reasonably accurate. There's also a brief scene that takes place in 1560, just to keep everyone on their toes. (2) Having a hard time keeping track of the characters within those time frames. There is a large cast here, with different actors playing the same roles in the different time frames. Not unrelated, I kept trying to link the two storylines together when I should have simply let them play out as presented. (3) The apparent and depicted age difference between Edward de Vere and Queen Elizabeth. This probably confused me most of all and prompted much of my online research. Elizabeth is (factually) 17 years older than de Vere, yet at various points in the film they appear to be comparable in age, at least once where she does appear to be about (the correct) 20 years older, and still others she looks about 50 years older than he.
I actually found it slightly harder to follow the "anonymous" plot than the succession storyline, the political intrigue element, if you will, which is really a backdrop to the film's argument of, Who is the real author of the work attributed to William Shakespeare? Again, my woeful lack of Shakespearean-era literature hurt me here. I did not know, for example, that Ben Jonson was a real person and an accomplished and highly regarded playwright in his own right. There is, to be fair, a scene in the beginning that establishes this, but, as I may have mentioned, the first 30 minutes so confused me — even after seeing it three times — that I didn't catch this.
OK, did I like Anonymous? I'm a bit surprised myself to say, yes, I did. If I hadn't felt engaged, I would have never made it through. True, I would have preferred that the storylines be told in a more linear fashion, which I think would have gone a long ways towards reducing, and maybe eliminating, the confusion I felt during the first hour or so. I rarely think scrollling text at the beginning of a film is a good idea, but it is sometimes needed just to set the stage for what follows. It could have been helpful here. (I'm guessing that Derek Jacobi's theater-within-a-theater prologue was supposed to do the same thing … but didn't.) And I would have preferred that the editing be such that the dual storylines were more closely integrated. The performances, however, are really quite good and the pacing is just about perfect; though it took me well over three hours to watch this film, what with restarting twice and stopping for research along the way, I still thought it moved along nicely. It's definitely an interesting, well-made film with an intriguing premise and one worth seeing.