After decades of loud and noisy films that usually don't have much to say of value, "Anonymous" comes as a refreshing change of pace for director Roland Emmerich. Drawing on the controversial theory regarding whether William Shakespeare really wrote any if all of the works attributed to him, "Anonymous" teams Emmerich with "Band of Brothers" scribe John Orloff for a perpetually moving historical thriller, that utilizes Emmerich's technical skills to perfection, but like many of his other films, suffers from problems when it comes to the idea behind the film in the first place.
Setting aside any personal issues with the idea behind the story itself, which I frankly found to be a load of hogwash, Emmerich's film is too fast and too short to tell a compelling story, which is a shame, because Orloff's track record would indicate even if one doesn't agree with the theory, there's still a possibility to convey it to the audience in an entirely logical manner. Instead, "Anonymous" throws far too much at viewers far too quickly, maintaining the same frantic pace Emmerich uses in his action films, resulting in a muddled introduction that will be the deciding factor whether many viewers choose to see how the remaining 100-minutes play out. Those who do stick around, and really they should, will get a healthy dose of period melodrama built around a hand-wavy conspiracy.
What "Anonymous" gets right is its casting, first and foremost, with Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere, the film's candidate for the "real Shakespeare" finding a balance between actual drama and the spotty story he's woven into. Vanessa Redgrave and real-life daughter Joely Richardson are interestingly cast as Elizabeth I, at different periods in their life obviously, resulting in two interesting takes on the same character. I must admit I was initially disappointed at the film's modern-day narrator, played by Derek Jacobi, if for no other reason than Jacobi's legacy as a respected Shakespearian actor being attached to such nonsense, but low and behold, in reading the back story on the authorship controversy, Jacobi is a big supporter of it, so in a roundabout way, Emmerich's film gets some validation from the Shakespearean community.
As complex and twisting as the story of adultery, political power plays and conspiracy is, so is the production design. While the soap opera qualities of the dialogue and over-the-top plot developments make this distant company from more respected period pieces, the costumes and sets are every bit as worthy if not more so of authentic praise. Emmerich's use of CGI for recreating period England is handled perfectly and the director's sweeping camerawork adds another dimension to on-stage scenes, shattering the myth of theater being stuffy and static. Ultimately, "Anonymous" is best taken as a period "Da Vinci Code." It's light entertainment, but technically captivating although not without many flaws easily fixed by adding a bit of time to the already two-plus hour film. I doubt the film will bring any newcomers on board to the controversial theory, but no one can deny the end product will never be mistaken as cheaply crafted.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is visually catching with a strong cold color palette and natural contrast levels. A hint of edge-enhancement is joined by some mild DNR that saps the image of more pronounced detail, which is a shame given the architecture of the film as well as the excellent costume design.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track utilizes the surrounds well, especially during the crowded live performance sequences as well as the quieter character moments that take place in expansive royal halls. The low end is never overly aggressive while the general quality of the mix is ear pleasing. Also included is an English 5.1 DVS track, as well as French and Spanish 5.1 track. English, English SDH, Chinese, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
For fans of the film and the authorship theory itself, the commentary with director Emmerich and writer John Orloff will be worth listening to. Joining the commentary is a collection of deleted scenes and a featurette titled "Who is the Real William Shakespeare" a promotional in nature featurette tackling the theory behind the film.
While "Anonymous" is a welcome change from the noisy nothingness of Emmerich's standard cinematic fare, as someone who personally thinks the theory behind the film is a bunch of hogwash, "Anonymous" was a crushing tedious bore. Objectively though, aside from issues with editing it's a technically competent film and conspiracy fans will definitely find something to enjoy. Rent It.