The Da Vinci Code (movie, not book), if you replace St. Peter with Shakespeare and set it at the time at which it transpired.
Roland Emmerich is known for his bad movies. Godzilla, 10,000 BC, and 2012 come to mind.
John Orloff, a screenwriter known for A Mighty Heart and HBO’s Band Of Brothers miniseries, has endured misfires (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole), but is generally a solid bet.
This pair is an odd combination to day the least; cheesy disaster movies and character studies combine to create Anonymous, a film that’s easily Emmerich’s best and Orloff’s worst. That doesn’t say much.
I’ll start with the good. Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave carry the film well in fine lead performances typical of their legitimate body of work; Derek Jacobi, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson, Edward Hogg, David Thewlis and Sebastian Armesto turn in solid screen time as well. The narrative is sufficiently compelling, and Emmerich is certainly ambitious with its approach.
However, the film is structurally convoluted and riddled with historical inaccuracies. Orloff’s dialogue leaves a lot to be desired; for such an educated screenwriter writing (somewhat) about writing (ahem, Charlie Kaufman), the vocabulary of the film should have been a lot richer. While that could come from Emmerich trying to make the film more comprehensible to mainstream audiences (i.e. dumbing it down), for now since there’s no evidence suggesting otherwise (HA, I’M REFERENCING THE MOVIE GUYS), I must blame it on Orloff.
Emmerich is entirely to blame for the film’s uneven pacing; there were several false climaxes and unnecessarily drawn-out sequences. Like The Da Vinci Code, it suffers as a result of its overlong running time.
The only acting performance in the film I disliked was that of Rafe Spall, playing a cartoonish version of William Shakespeare, portrayed by Emmerich as a bumbling, illiterate, chubby-chasing idiot actor with few sharp moments and an English redneck-ish vibe that leaves him mostly uninteresting and annoying.
The film centers around Edward de Vere (Ifans), who supposedly wrote all of “Shakespeare’s” plays, who in his youth had a torrid affair with the Queen (Redgrave), now an aging woman torn over who will succeed her as the monarch of England. The Queen leans heavily on her advisors, the villainous Cecils (Thewlis and Hogg), who advocate for the ascension of King James of Scotland. Meanwhile, Ben Jonson (Armesto) acts as the middleman between de Vere and Shakespeare (Spall), the actor chosen to be the face of de Vere’s brilliant, but controversial works. The reason de Vere is forced into anonymity is that he’s married to a member of the Cecil family, which believes that writing is blasphemous. These stories all intertwine between 20-30 minutes in, leaving you quite confused until then. To be fair, the story takes unexpected twists and turns and is certainly compelling, but borders on cheese-laughs. It’ll be interesting to see how the reviews and commercial performance shake out.
Emmerich’s visual style is too CGI and messy for my taste, but the opening and closing sequences provide decent bookends to the film. The music, by frequent Emmerich collaborator Harald Kloser and Thomas Wanker, is eminently predictable and sappy, but gets the job done.
A fellow film student who went with me pointed out the similarities to Amadeus inherent in the story, and she asked that I mention that somewhere in this review.
Overall, the film is just okay. Solid performances hurt by poor direction and pacing. Again, The Da Vinci Code for Shakespearean scholars instead of the Catholic Church.
P.S: Seated a few seats down from me was legendary critic Leonard Maltin, also a professor at USC, obviously there to review the film. It made me feel like a real film critic.