Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: Anonymous

The most interesting thing about Anonymous going in is it's director. Roland Emmerich is best known for big scale disaster and action movies (the best of which is probably Independence Day), and so his decision to direct a slow burning period thriller is...odd to say the least. However it's my happy duty to report that the movie (which reads like a weird mix of JFK and Amadeus if that makes any sense) is quite good.

The story is based around the conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare wasn't actually the author of the plays that bear his name, more specifically that they were written by a nobleman who used them to not-so-subtly mock then current political figures without getting in trouble for it. You don't have to buy into that theory for the film to work though, because taken on it's own merits it's a well done political thriller, concerned more with being an enjoyable cloak and dagger story rather than selling it's idea.

Roland Emmerich has always had a flare for visuals and he puts it to good use here, but also manages to slow down for smaller, closer scenes. Where the technical aspects really shine is in the sets and costumes and for once not just with Queen Elizabeth (not that she doesn't get some absurd costumes in too). The level of detail put into making the film look and feel historically accurate is actually rather impressive.

Of course even with good technical work, we must have good story or else we're just watching very well photographed nothing (or more simply, Avatar. Zing). The story is engaging and well told, with enough story twists to keep you guessing without it ever feeling gratuitous. It's rather interesting, at least to me, to see Shakespeare who is usually treated like a Saint in film (not without reason) depicted as a drunk asshole. And Shakespeare nuts will enjoy watching for subtle and not so subtle call backs to the Bard's work.

Okay, okay, I'm overselling it, it's far from perfect. To wit, it trades up treating Shakespeare the person as a saint for treating the person he supposedly was like a saint. The dialogue gets wooden at tims and the direction still has the tendency to hit you over the head with certain concepts. The acting goes up and down: Rhys Ifans does a great hero, Vanessa Redgrave really sells the Elizabeth part and Rafe Spall does a get secondary villain, most of the rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, particularly Sebastian Armesto who's character only has one real effect on the story towards the end and a smaller one towards the beginning and other than that ends up being just sorta there.

That's the other problem: A story like this needs to have a tight narrative focus and it really doesn't. For example, the film has not one but two different framing devices. This is usually fine, but they don't really enter into it much except at the beginning and end, especially since one is crying out to be revisited throughout the piece. The story itself slides around in time and space a lot too. At one point a major character is sent off to Ireland for political reasons and isn't brought up at all until much later in the film at which point I'd nearly forgotten about him. And the use of flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks really starts to confuse you about when particular events happen, not to mention why.

Whatever, I'm nitpicking. What you need to know is Anonymous is well made, to a point and deeply engaging while it's going on. It's probably Roland Emmerich's best film since the aforementioned Independence Day and if he could get a really good script on his hands he could probably make a modern masterpiece. And while Anonymous is far from his masterpiece, it's a step in the right direction and well worth your time. Call this one recommended.

Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he's waiting for the day that a movie actually does period teeth right.

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