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Unknown-1Coming from director Roland Emmerich, you might expect “Anonymous” to be a large scale action movie about the end of the world, a prehistoric beast or giant Japanese monster. Instead the German director has left the disaster motifs of his previous work behind and created a large scale period piece about the importance of literature set against a backdrop of intrigue and sexual peccadilloes in seventeenth century England.

With a plot that mixes and matches themes from history and Shakespeare’s plays, “Anonymous” uses the backdrop of the struggle for succession between the Tudors and the Cecils as the Essex rebellion moves against Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) to set the scene for the debut of Shakespeare’s plays. But were they actually written by Shakespeare?  The movie supposes it was Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans)—the Anonymous of the title—who penned plays attributed to William Shakespeare. He kept to the shadows to save his family the embarassment of havimg a common writer in their midst and because thee plays were openly critical of the Queen’s advisors Cecil and Raleigh.

In a story ripe with mystery the only real question is how this got made at all. Big budget Shakespearean movies don’t get made much anymore, so I guess the next best thing is to make a big budget movie about Shakespeare, and Emmerich, despite his tendency to try and juggle too many story threads at one time does a good job at bringing the elegantly filthy world of Elizabethan Britain. Powdered faces, filthy fingernails and velvet jackets abound and the atmosphere adds much to the story.

This is a sprawling story with many twists and turns. The downside is the film’s sketchy casting. In flashbacks the queen and Edward appear to be the same age, but later after a major twist, are revealed to be sixteen years apart. This kind of lack of attention to detail muddies the waters in the flashbacks, making it difficult to follow the story in the first hour. Soon enough, however, all the players are straightened away and the pleasures of the story take hold.

A liberal mix of fact and fiction–there is no real life evidence that the Earl of Oxford penned the plays–“Anonymous” is a twisted tale about how politics and art intersect, and the written word’s ability to instigate change.

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