Anonymous misleads audiences from the getgo...

My attraction to Special FX auteur Roland Emmerich's latest had very little to do with the man's name. In fact it had little to do with any names at all. Rol Rol made sure, like in many of his films, to cast a troupe of actors who, though brilliant, won't be pinned under one towering name. The problem, in America at least, is that audiences here need a recognizable face to get them into a dark room. Without a name the movie seemingly carries no value. Emmerich managed to quell that by instead filling his movies with such a frenzy of special effects that audiences didn't need a familiar face. Explosions would do.

But there are no explosions in Anonymous. Instead there's genuine acting, plot twists and enough beautiful period costumes to make your head spin. But there's also a pretty solid premise. The trouble with this "solid" premise is that the trailer told you absolutely nothing about it. The film appears to be a story about the theory that Shakespeare as we know him never existed. But that's only half the story and it's the lesser half if that makes any sense. The much larger story arch revolves around the British aristocracy. Characters lie, cheat and backstab their way to positions of power. It all ends up being a pretty engrossing political thriller where most people thought they'd be having to deal with iambic pentameter and brilliant but difficult language.

The film does dwell in the over-dramatic from time to time but luckily its populated by a number of brilliant English actors who can handle the demands of the script. The result is a film that though written in simpler language isn't unlike a Shakespearean play. The themes are universal and ever present, the drama is over-the-top and always earth-shattering and the limelit royal family is used for target practice.

It's not a perfect movie but there are enough fun twists and wonderful actors to keep it going. Emmerich forced himself to downplay and the result is surprisingly enjoyable. I won't give it a rating because I'd like to develop some ludicrous system before I do so. 8 out of 17 dirtbikes. Lets try that on for now.
-Fox Johnson

So, let's first say hello to Fox Johnson (and Tim, too, but you've seen a few of his pieces by proxy by now, so he's less special) who'll be writing about music, TV, graphic novel and film from time to time with the rest of the staff (if he thinks he's writing about video games he's got another fucking thing coming). And let's second add to this, at his behest.

Roland Emmerich and Anonymous are funny cases. It's worth noting that this movie comes at the end of a year where dependable filmmakers' latest historical epics were given something less than the time of day and just more than a kick in the taint. Roland Joffe's There Be Dragons, by all accounts a return to form from the director of The Mission who'd languished in the youth market, losing control of the likes of Captivity and doing christ-knows-what on the set of Undressed, was a day late and a dollar short to everyone but me. Robert Redford's The Conspirator was treated like a middle school textbook-to-be and Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is currently being yawned at across this great nation of ours. I enjoyed all three. Have my tastes become more populist or am I seeing something other critics don't? Often I find myself in a screening room with nothing but men and women easily 50 years my senior, so perhaps it's me. All the same, "craft" has become synonymous with boring in most reviews, so I feel like someone has to step in and offer Emmerich a life preserver.

The negative reviews I've encountered seem to stop at "what an insulting idea!" And yeah, admittedly, if I thought Emmerich cared about the thesis, I might be slightly outraged that a man as rich as he is would make a film positing that an uneducated pauper could become the world's most celebrated playwright. But, Emmerich, like myself, doesn't seem to give a tinker's damn about Shakespeare. I spent most of Elementary school and high school being told what brilliant work he did. And I believed that he did write beautifully until I was subjected to his best works over and over and fucking over and over and over again and I've lost my zeal for his work. My favourite Shakespeare adaptation is My Own Private Idaho, so that ought to tell you my level of admiration these days. So bring on the revisionist history I say. I count myself among Buñuel's biggest fans, think The Savages is one of Merchant Ivory's best films, and worship Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class. Why wouldn't I want to watch a movie where Shakespeare is either an incestuous, snobbish prat or a drunken illiterate murderer? Tell me beautiful lies about this beloved figure. And while you're at it, show me Vanessa Redgrave having the time of her life as a scene-devouring Queen Elizabeth, second only to Quentin Crisp in Orlando. Show me anything that proves that a centuries old monarchy is populated by the grotesques who wound up in the man's greatest plays.

Emmerich admittedly has an edge over an academic elite who might make a film about Shakespeare the man, rather than this, a beautifully played, conspiracy-fueled hatchet job, in that he has trillions of dollars to spend on some of the most lavish costumes and sets I've ever seen in my life. Anna Foerster, using the Arri Alexa for the first time on a feature film (advantage Emerich), manages to combine the filth and darkness of your typical period film with the wooziness of Terry Gilliam. The effect is engrossing and absolutely fucking gorgeous. It rakes over the costumed bastards running around John Orloff's vision of England, which takes the reverence we reserve for royalty and Shakespeare and throws it face first in the mud outside the Globe. And for the first time in a long time I was interested in the bard's words again. Sure, it could be read as anti-intellectualism (and in case you think that I agree, ask anyone who's spent ten minutes with me. They know I'm the biggest fucking snob in this part of the world), but unless you're a Shakespearian actor (and frankly Derek Jacobi's here, so I doubt they care), I think slavish worship of the man over the works represents an .08 percent of them anyway. And you know what? John Milius and I would probably shoot each other if we talked politics over dinner (the fact that I made vegan food might incense him enough to pull a gun. Why did I cook? He's a guest here, I'm not gonna make him cook) but the man knows his way around a camera. I hesitate to use the word craft again but watch the orgy scene in Conan The Barbarian again. It's fucking amazing and no one says a word. Absolutely top-notch filmmaking. Shit, people still study Leni Riefenstahl. So, let's stop hiding behind the argument that content = style because suggesting Shakespeare might have had a different name and background than we know is a lot less evil than Nazi propaganda. Nazi Propaganda, I hasten to add, that I was shown clips from not four years ago in a film class. And it's not like the whole thing is oppressive class warfare, either. The most sympathetic character in the film is Ben Johnson, far from the filthy rich Earl of Oxford, who dies penniless anyway (again, all in this film's universe), the words he writes more important than power or even knowing his own legacy would be carried on. The money-hungry Cecils are unquestionably the film's enemy and the greedy, lustful Shakespeare is no angel himself. So I don't get how this fairy tale could possibly enrage people (as it did Keith Phipps, whose D+ betrays his feelings about the plot's implications. I'd also point out that he gave Margaret a C and Paul W.S. Anderson's execrable retelling of The Three Musketeers a C fucking minus. One shade should not separate one of the year's best movies and a goddamn Matrix-ripoff in a corset) to the extent it has. Just fucking look at it! 

And if design does nothing for you, how about Joely Richardson's ravishing young Queen (and a bonus for devotees, she grows into her mother, something I was beside myself to discover when they revealed both actresses), Rafe Spall's hungry ambition morphing into murderous pride, David Thewlis' take on Professor Snape-style string-pulling, or Edward Hogg, one of the best living actors, turning in one of the year's best performances as the eel-like Robert Cecil and nearly walking off with the whole film, managing to be the embodiment of evil on one hand and still capable of peeling back layer after layer to get my sympathy in his most important scene. To get me to like someone I hated the minute I saw him (granted the script doesn't give him a ton of nuance) is no small feat, especially in a movie by the guy who made 2012. Even Sebastian Armesto, who has a little troubling as a convincing shouter when paired with the effortless disgust of Rhys Ifans or Spall's cunning bastard, is a distinct and beautiful enough presence that he wound up the most likable character in the film. I was consistently surprised by how much I loved this film when until this point I was ready to give up on Emmerich. So, let's not pretend we're above this sort of thing because goddamnit we cannot ignore talent when it finally, blessedly makes itself known. And I will not have Emmerich go back to making empty spectacle when I know he's capable of brilliance.


No comments: