Film Review: Anonymous

Flick to the cinema section of the Hot Mess dictionary, and there you will find an entry for Anonymous. Roland Emmerich’s hymn to ludicrousness is a camp fiasco.

In Elizabethan London, William Shakespeare is an actor, performing in the plays of others. Edward, Earl of Oxford is a secret playwright, looking for an anonymous way for to make his plays public. Initially recruiting Ben Jonson to act as author, William Shakespeare happily plays the part when Jonson shows reluctance…

The problem with the Anonymous is manifold. Firstly, there is the absurd narrative. While it is not inconceivable that Shakespeare’s works were written by another, the story descends into farce while most of the cast try to keep a straight face. Taking liberties with historical fact, Emmerich has created a Tudor melodrama, with its ever so earnest heroes and comedy villains.

Perhaps the problem is that William Shakespeare is a much loved and respected icon. Making a mockery of the man was always likely to go down badly among sections of the audience. If the film had tried to retain a shred of realism, perhaps it would not have been so offensive. Instead, the film becomes more and more absurd as it progresses.

The character of Shakespeare in the film is unfathomable. To portray him as a bumbling idiot would be one thing. Instead, Emmerich has taken it to a whole other level with Rafe Spall’s Russell Brand impersonation. It seems as if Spall is almost playing for laughs, and makes the film an experiment in high camp.

Performances in Anonymous are generally subpar. Sebastian Armesto, Helen Baxendale, Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Hogg and Rafe Spall all play as if the film was a soap opera. As Earl of Oxford, Rhys Ifans is the only one who appears to be taking things seriously. There is some nice staging but at times locations and sets look terribly artificial. Production values are otherwise fine.

Taken as a serious drama, Anonymous is an awful film. As a farce, Emmerich’s film is rather enjoyable as you anticipate the next comical twist.

Anonymous is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2011.