For nearly 100 years experts in historical and literary fields have been debating the authenticity of William Shakespeare's master works. Was he really a storytelling genius who single-handedly crafted a vast body of poems and plays? Or were they actually the works of another unnamed author? Could a group of playwrights have written under a sole moniker? Director Roland Emmerich dives headfirst into this century-old debate with his new movie Anonymous piecing together evidence to unravel the mystery with dramatic flair. Unfortunately the only thing he discovers in the process is that the answers aren't that interesting.
The movie centers on Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans) a scholarly gentleman forced as a youngster into the role of Earl of Oxford. While Edward prefers to spend his time waxing poetically and bringing theatrics to life for the adoring Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) his caretaker the sinister mustache-twirling-without-a-mustache William Cecil (David Thewlis) authoritatively directs him on the path of the aristocracy. But that doesn't stop De Vere from toiling over his written work spending years crafting plays and poems in-between canoodling with the Queen (for shame!).
As a grown man De Vere finds himself married off to Cecil's daughter battling the tired advisor and his hunchback son (Edward Hogg) all while continuing to write and attend the common man's theater. During one such excursion the Earl crosses paths with playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) who De Vere sees as the perfect representative to take ownership over his plays hoping they can finally be brought to life on stage. Of course Johnson realizes slapping his name on De Vere's works of genius would put the kibosh on his own career so he hands them over to his horny drunk actor friend William t (Rafe Spall). The staged plays are a hit but their appeal to the masses is a red flag to the court. Cecil commences a hunt for the true author of Shakespeare's plays landing De Vere in hot water.
Emmerich intertwines De Vere Johnson and Shakespeare's quest for theatrical fame with political unrest and romantic subplots but none of the story arcs have the spark of a real mystery/thriller. The director and his screenwriter John Orloff (The Guardians of Ga'hoole) aim to replicate The Bard's tragic character-driven plays with their own story relying on performance and dense dialogue to entrance the viewer. But Emmerich goes so far out of his way to restrain himself from his usual eye for end-of-the-world destruction (made famous in Independence Day Godzilla The Day After Tomorrow 2012…) that the movie trudges along without an ounce of intrigue. It's almost as if Anonymous strives to be purposefully boring Emmerich attempting to deliver performance-first directing but ending up with string of flat sloth-paced back-and-forths. He does manage to squeeze a few action scenes into the mix—De Vere fends off an attacker in a thrilling confined swordfight—but even the bigger moments feel muted.
The creative duo's grounded tactics do occasionally payoff thanks to a solid cast led by powerhouse thespian Ifans. Anonymous luxuriates in Elizabethan history and royal affairs presented in a fashion only a few steps up from your run-of-the-mill high school text book but Ifans steps in and turns hammy exposition into lyrical dialogue. While he doesn't have the power to make it all register Ifans makes the experience of Anonymous worth seeing and hearing. One transcendent moment shows De Vere crumbling in front of his wife explaining his instinctual need to write. The monologue is powerful—but the surroundings created by Emmerich fail to support him.
The rest of the ensemble does their best to wrangle our attentions—the legendary Vanessa Redgrave as the older repressed Queen Elizabeth and Spall's lively arrogant Shakespeare are standouts—but the lingering question of "why does this matter?" continually stands in the film's way. The works of William Shakespeare are a foundation for the dramatic arts a staple of literary education and a testament to the power of written word. After 500 years his plays continue to be relevant embodying the full spectrum of human emotion. So it's understandable why Roland Emmerich would embark on an expansive blockbuster dissection behind the truth of these achievements. But Anonymous only manages to present plausible events never tackling the weight of those accusations dead on. Going head to head with The Bard should live up to the existing body of work. Anonymous on the other hand feels abridged.
The film follows the journey of the title character (Kirsten Dunst) the winsome sweet-natured teenage archduchess of Austria who is dispatched by her family in the late 1700s into a politically advantageous marriage to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) the future king of France. While the trappings of the royal palace at Versailles are as extravagant and glamorous as any traditional historical biopic the heart of the film is Marie Antoinette’s smaller more emotional world as she struggles to fit in with the puzzling customs and often-stern judgment of a foreign court. She must also fulfill her duty to her own nation—namely producing an heir to safeguard their political status a task that proves increasingly frustrating as she romances her maddeningly reticent new husband. Much like any modern young woman in our era of airhead heiresses she initially soothes her angst by indulging in excessive shopping sprees wild parties and flirtations with a hunky war hero. But she also eases into her role on the throne only to find that her starving angry peasant subjects have taken a harsh view of the gossip surrounding her profligate behavior as they mount the French Revolution. As a child actress who worked steadily into her teens and early twenties Dunst has always been a fresh sunny presence on screen in popcorn films like Bring It On but who could also reveal an ability to access darker corners as she did in her debut performance in Interview with the Vampire and in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. But after her breakthrough role in 2002’s Spider-Man most of Dunst’s subsequent efforts seem to have be chosen more to build her Hollywood stardom than challenge her acting skills and perhaps unchallenged she delivers performances more competent than compelling. Marie Antoinette is a welcome return to a more complicated and conflicted role and she rises to the challenge admirably with her most appealing and most affecting turn to date. Utterly capturing the queen’s evolution from naïf to sophisticate gaining wisdom and maturity from her youthful frustrations and overindulgences Dunst makes Marie’s plight utterly relatable and imbues virtually every scene of the film with a watchability that outdoes even the luxe production design. In only her third—and most ambitious—film writer-director Sofia Coppola continues on her hot streak. Already one of the most atmospheric and subtle helmers working in Hollywood she not only marries her modern dreamlike style to the opulent visuals of a historical drama she effectively redefines Marie Antoinette in a way that any alienated over-her-head teen of today could appreciate while also showing just why the population at large might have considered her a monster. As Coppola is the quiet introspective daughter of a revered famously over-the-top filmmaker she too was thrust into a sophisticated world at an early age and was with her much-panned acting turn in The Godfather Part III certainly misunderstood by the public if not reviled. One is tempted to think a certain reliability applies to her success with her story. But her assured skills as a filmmaker are what really make Marie soar—even her experimental touches such as the use of anachronistic music on the soundtrack (the Strokes Bow Wow Wow New Order and others appear alongside Vivaldi). It make perfect sense in context the kind of tunes a disaffected adolescent might play in her bedroom while wondering why no one understands them. That’s just the icing; the rest of Marie’s delectable cake is well worth eating.