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Anonymous

Year: 2011
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: John Orloff
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance

No small amount of chatter arose when this film was announced and then released. Roland Emmerich – he of the biggest, loudest and most obtuse CGI disaster porn movies so brash and over the top they're the kind of thing not even American directors do anymore – was doing a historical drama about the longtime theory that Shakespeare was a pen name.

At the time I thought it was a conspiracy thriller about the mystery of his real identity, but it's actually a drama about the political intrigue going on in the English royal court at the time of his work.

It's revealed early on that Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), a frustrated writer, pens all the plays and funnels them to a midly talented playwright named Ben Jonson to deliver to the local company to stage.

I gather from the machinations of the plot – where the threat of being shut down by authorities – that some of them were considered politically subversive, which explains why a nobleman could never publish such work.

But a great deal of the rest of the story is concerned with a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) and the political and royal figures like the slimy William Cecil (David Thewlis) and the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) all jostling to consolidate, sieze or maintain power around her.

None of it's badly written – in fact the script by John Orloff is multi-faceted, seems to be thoroughly well researched and (like modern potboilers such as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ), is all plot, every word and scene advancing various threads of conspiracy and intrigue.

It's just a bit long and a bit stuffy, and the constantly gold/brown colour palette of muddy, candle-lit, stonework London gets a bit drab after awhile. It seems Emmerich wanted to make a grand statement about not just being the big CGI destruction guy, so he came onto a script that was more about story than thrills, hired a good cinematographer to light it appropriately and hoped for the best.

That said, if you hate everything about Emmerich the way you do about Michael Bay, you might be fearing an epic turkey. Stylistically, it's not at all as inept or overblown as the rest of his work. In fact some scenes – especially ones of the rowdy theatre crowds and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Mark Rylance as a company player – are so well made they could have come from a Weinstein Oscar contender.

In a piece of peripheral trivia, it was also the first movie shot entirely with the Arri Alexa digital camera.

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