It was bound to happen, sooner or later Roland Emmerich was destined to seek out other areas of our existence to destroy. In the last two decades as a familiar blockbuster director, he has aggrandized the Revolutionary spirit of Early America to mythological scale ('The Patriot') and taken a similar approach in fashioning natural history into an action-packed epic ('10,000 B.C.'). He's made contact with planets in the far-reaches of the universe ('Stargate') and transformed an iconic monster into one giant lizard ('Godzilla'). Of course, Emmerich is best known for conjuring different ways of completely annihilating Earth. So, after imagining our planet's destruction, it was only a matter of time, I suppose, before he'd attempt to obliterate human history.
In 'Anonymous,' Emmerich sets his sights upon the literary world of the English Renaissance by trying to give credence to the preposterous Oxfordian theory, which questions and theorizes the authorship of Shakespeare's works. If the argument were considered with any seriousness, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (hence, the name of the theory) seems the most likely candidate. The well-educated gentleman was very well-regarded by his circle of friends as a poet and writer of comedies. It continues to be an ongoing debate amongst scholars with a crackpot conspiracy of de Vere at the center of it, but thankfully, the discussion has done little to deter the public from seeing the Bard of Avon as the one true author of some of the most influential stage plays of all time.
The script was written by John Orloff, who also penned 'A Mighty Heart,' 'Legend of the Guardians' and two episodes of 'Band of Brothers' — which now has me questioning the authorship of those works. With no scholarly evidence to support this fictionalized retelling of the Elizabethan era, Orloff imagines the Earl of Oxford (brilliantly played by Rhys Ifans) having several secret meetings with Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), another famous writer of the period. But rather than taking credit for the plays as agreed, the pompous actor Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) accepts the endless praise and recognition. Of the entire plot, this amazingly turns out to be the only insulting aspect of the film, portraying The Bard as an illiterate buffoon and conveniently ignoring his marital status.
Most surprising, however, is the fact that I actually enjoyed watching the last years of Queen Elizabeth's reign played out on the big screen, envisioning what the Shakespearean era must have looked like and picturing the audience of The Globe. Ignoring the ludicrous hypothesis first proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920, 'Anonymous' is actually an engaging historical drama of Early Modern politics. The English court of the period was rife with intrigue, conspiracy, and rebellious plots, and Emmerich's film smartly draws more attention to that aspect of the story than to the attempt to legitimize the other supposed conspiracy we were half expecting. Concerns are with the rightful successor to Elizabeth's throne, and de Vere uses the power of the stage for inspiring the poor huddled masses.
Many other historical figures and events are used to flesh out the story, like the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and the Queen's two long-time advisors, William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg). Sadly, the film is also riddled with inaccuracies and shows little respect for providing the audience with at least a decently accurate timeline. Christopher Marlowe's (Trystan Gravelle) death is no mystery; he was killed in a bar fight and stabbed above the left eye. Also, the Essex Rebellion was not preceded by a performance of 'Richard III'; it was 'Richard II' and did not result in a major uprising. And the list keeps growing with the dates of other events and the publications of certain works being completely off, sometimes by several years.
Nonetheless, and as long as we ignore the several inaccuracies, 'Anonymous' still manages to deliver a well-crafted and energetic political thriller. Even Shakespeare himself could hardly be called historically accurate or wholly original, yet his plays are some of the most cherished in the world — and rightfully so. Emmerich's film should be seen purely as a fictional drama, taken from a variety of sources which make up a rather compelling story and never really posits or genuinely advances an argument against Shakespeare's authorship. It only imagines the whole thing, as implied by the opening and closing moments with the wonderful Derek Jacobi, presenting the film as merely a fanciful and entertaining play, full of sound and fury but ultimately signifying nothing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings Roland Emmerich's 'Anonymous' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc and housed inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. When placed in the player, viewers can enjoy a long series of trailers for other movies in the studio's catalog or skip over them. The main menu features the usual selection with full-motion clips and music in the background.
'Anonymous' bursts onto the screen with a highly-detailed and beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) that stays true to Anne Foerster's stylized cinematography. Much the film's look is to capture a sense of natural lighting, imitating either daylight or the glow of candles. As would be expected, contrast and brightness is noticeably sacrificed somewhat but consistent and well balanced. The picture still maintains a clean, crisp quality with many dark, penetrating shadows which tend to overwhelm much of the background info during interior scenes. The color palette is also affected, appearing quite drained and giving the presentation a rather gloomy façade. Primaries remain quite vibrant, however, offering various glimmers of life, and secondary hues provide some warmth to several conversations. The transfer displays excellent definition throughout, and facial complexions have a nice, lifelike texture.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a mostly front-heavy affair, which is to be expected of a dialogue-driven film with a great deal of character development. Vocals and various dramatic conversations are very precise and well-prioritized in the center of the screen. The lossless mix displays a wide, spacious soundstage with lots of fluid movement between the channels, and several off-screen atmospherics are delivered with convincing effect. Dynamic range exhibits a crisp, detailed quality that gives the sudden bursts of action a great sense of presence and clarity. The musical score comes with a superb richness and fidelity that bleeds into the rear speakers, filling the room and drawing the listener into the film's many emotional points. Low bass doesn't come with a commanding force, but it's healthy and appropriate to the material.
Half of the special features on the Blu-ray can also be found on the DVD release of the historical drama.
Inspired by the preposterous Oxfordian theory, which questions the authorship of Shakespeare's works, disaster filmmaker Roland Emmerich makes an attempt at shattering the literary world by imagining the theory as a historical possibility. In actuality, 'Anonymous' plays out more like a political thriller set against a backdrop of Queen Elizabeth's succession. Looked at from this angle, the film makes a surprisingly good fictional period piece about conspiracy and intrigue while deceptively celebrating the power of art and the written language. The Blu-ray from Sony Pictures arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation. Supplements are decent with a couple of extra exclusives only found on the high-def format, making the package worthy of recommendation.