Review: ‘Anonymous’

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If you can get on the wavelength of the goofy, ludicrous "Anonymous," you're in for a fun time. This shouldn't be that surprising considering that this period drama is the latest work from director Roland Emmerich, who's usually busy finding new ways to destroy our planet with aliens ("Independence Day"), monsters ("Godzilla"), climate change ("The Day After Tomorrow"), or Mayans ("2012"). The guy's practically the king of disbelief suspension cinema, so anybody who wants to get huffy about the fact that he's made a two-hour-plus movie about the conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare didn't write all those plays only has himself to blame. Sure, "Anonymous" is pulpy and silly and junky, but it's also pretty consistently entertaining. And a lot of the credit has to go to its star, Rhys Ifans.

Set during the late 16th and early 17th century, "Anonymous" presents a counter-reality where the plays attributed to Shakespeare were actually the work of Edward de Vere (Ifans), who is the Earl of Oxford. But because of his aristocratic standing, Edward can't let the world know he's a writer, which is deemed a lowly profession. Still, concerned that the dastardly Cecil family (led by father David Thewlis and son Edward Hogg) will have control of England after the eventual death of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), Edward recruits playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to produce his plays under his own name, hoping they will inspire the common people to revolt against the Cecils. Jonson refuses to take credit for the terrific plays, but after they become hits, local actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steps in to receive the accolades.

If you read through that plot description and haven't yet dismissed "Anonymous" as pure nonsense, congratulations: You're halfway home to enjoying this movie. Bookended by a modern-day narrator (Derek Jacobi) who introduces the "play" we're about to see, "Anonymous" is a lot less pretentious than you might fear and far more juicy than you could have hoped. This is one of those movies in which every second of palace intrigue boils down to Big Secrets involving Unspeakable Acts, and Emmerich attacks each bit of political maneuvering with the same blunt enthusiasm he usually expends destroying Earth's greatest monuments. But to Emmerich's credit, he does a decent job of bothering to make an Elizabethan drama that's more talk than action, a seemingly unwise proposition for an action director whose films aren't known for their dialogue or human beings.

What gives the film its anchor is Ifans as the haughty, heroic Edward. Negotiating with nobility and strategizing with Jonson, Edward always gives the impression of being the smartest, sharpest character on the screen, and likewise Ifans seems to be tipping his hand to the audience, acknowledging that this whole endeavor is pure malarkey but, hey, if you invest enough charisma and energy into it, you can make an audience believe anything. Ifans seemed destined for breakout stardom after his supporting turn in "Notting Hill," and while he's been in big movies since -- he'll be the bad guy in the upcoming "Amazing Spider-Man" -- he's an actor who's pursued an unpredictable path. "Anonymous" isn't his greatest film, but it's a great showcase for his regal, soulful side. He has a blast without ever letting on that he's above the material, although he clearly is. And with him as our fearless guide through this preposterous tale, we feel like we're in good hands, willing to go through the silliness right alongside him.

Grade: B-