Vanessa Redgrave

Rhys Ifans portrays the Earl of Oxford in a scene from ¬ďAnonymous.¬Ē (Photo courtesy of Sony and Columbia Pictures)

Roland Emmerich has built his career on disaster film epics such as “Independence Day” and “2012,” but his passion project “Anonymous” is a film of an entirely different vein. Positing that William Shakespeare’s (Rafe Spall) works were in fact written by the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), Emmerich’s film has been in development for more than a decade and is the director’s latest since 2009’s “2012.”

The Daily Texan participated in a round table interview with Emmerich when he was in town for a screening.


The Daily Texan: Why did you choose to make a film about the Oxford theory?
Roland Emmerich:
I got a script where Oxford was the candidate. Right now, I’m 100 percent of belief that the man from Stratford [William Shakespeare] didn’t write it. I would say that Oxford is the most likely but also the most interesting candidate of all the candidates. I think it’s appropriate that Oxford is the true author in our version.

DT: How is doing a period piece like this one different from your bigger blockbuster fare?
Emmerich:
On one hand, it’s exactly the same. It’s shooting a movie. You have a camera, you have a crew, you have actors. When I’m doing a big movie, I always dread the days when I have to do action scenes or visual effects scenes because they’re actually really boring, and it’s very hard to keep the energy of the actors up and say, “John [Cusack], you have to run faster!” He tries to run faster on this fake walking machine. It’s ridiculous. In this movie, everything was there for me, because the actors were all there.


DT: Did you have time afforded to you that you could spend with actors on set?
Emmerich:
It’s English actors. When you look at my other films, I use a lot of English actors. I love how well-prepared they come and how easy they are to direct. You can really have a normal conversation with them. They have no ego and really just want to please you. When you’re good with them and you say the right things to them, they give amazing performances, and I think we have some of the best performances we have seen ever in a film in this film. I think it’s stunningly acted. I don’t know how these guys did it, they can even control the tears in their eyes.

DT: Tell me about casting.
Emmerich:
These are high-class English theater actors. You’re quite honored that they want to take a meeting with you. And then some of them are my favorites. David Thewlis has been one of my favorites since “Naked.” He’s a terrific actor. And Vanessa [Redgrave] and Rhys Ifans. A friend of mine shot a movie with him like 10 years ago, and he said he’s probably one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. I started studying him, and when we met, he was so interesting. You kind of pigeonhole directors, but you can also pigeonhole actors. He’s always been pigeonholed since he was in his underwear in “Notting Hill,” and he is the clown. That’s it.

DT: Was it by design that you had Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave [a mother-daughter team who play the adult and elderly versions of Queen Elizabeth] in the film?
Emmerich:
When we wrote the final draft, I said, “I know how we do Elizabeth. We cast Vanessa and Joely.” It was an idea I had at that moment, but it totally made sense for me and I never wavered in it. I got very lucky that they both wanted to do it. Joely always kind of stands a little bit under the shadow of her mom, and I think she gives an amazing performance. It was tough for both of them, they’re competing in a weird way to overcome that it’s not competing. It’s showing two sides of a character, and they kind of understood that.

“Anonymous” opens in theaters today.

Printed on Friday, October 28, 2011 as: Director Roland Emmerich returns with 'Anonymous': Emmerich branches out from disaster genre

Review

Photo Credit: Betsy Cooper | Daily Texan Staff

“Anonymous” director Roland Emmerich played a large part in getting the film made, but a man famous for bringing audiences explosion-happy apocalyptic films such as “Independence Day” and “2012” should probably stay away from the period pieces.

“Anonymous” is by no means Emmerich’s trademark disaster fare, but that doesn’t stop the film from being a straight-up disaster, something that becomes clearer with each self-serious, excruciatingly overwrought frame of the film.

Based upon a theory that William Shakespeare’s many seminal works weren’t actually written by the great author, “Anonymous” posits the author was instead the Earl of Oxford (an unrecognizable Rhys Ifans). Shakespeare (played here by a drunken, idiotic Rafe Spall) isn’t even the Earl’s first choice for a public face for his plays, which can never be published under his own name due to the British royalty’s disdain for playwriting. However, when Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), another playwright, rejects the Earl’s offer, both he and Shakespeare are loosely drawn into the Earl’s web of Victorian intrigue, which includes a passionate affair with Queen Elizabeth (played by mother-daughter duo Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave).

If all of that sounds incredibly dry and convoluted, that’s because it really, truly is. “Anonymous” fails on a basic storytelling level in every way, unable to decide if it wants to be a large-scale tragedy (despite lacking engaging characters or plot), or just a really long episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — despite missing that show’s pulpy satisfaction. Either way, the film wouldn’t work, simply because Emmerich’s take on the Shakespearean mythos is so clumsily handled and unconvincing that audiences will dismiss the theory simply because of the turd of a movie that presents it.

There are a few redeeming qualities, though they are few and far between. The film’s theatrical bookends, centered on monologues delivered by the reliable Derek Jacobi, are a clever framing device, and Emmerich’s construction of Victorian-era London is detailed and extremely impressive.

As always, Shakespeare’s writing is a fascinating thing to watch on-screen, and the film’s most powerful scenes involve the performance of one of the Bard’s many plays and manages to portray a few interesting ideas about the power of art. On the acting side, many of the performances range from scenery-chewing to dull delivery of dusty dialogue, but Vanessa Redgrave stands out as the half-mad Queen, selling every beat of the queen’s sense of betrayal as her mental stability is stripped out from under her.

Unfortunately, Redgrave’s is the only performance that’s worth noticing. The rest of the characters range from bland to indistinguishable from others, something only hurt by the two timelines the film alternates between. As various Earls are introduced to us via pompous exposition without any reason to exist in the story, the film gets bogged down. Even when the overall story arc begins to take shape, the muddled screenplay has kept us at arm’s length for so long that it’s hard to care what happens. The script’s lack of subtlety and an incredibly ill-advised final twist make “Anonymous” even more frustrating to watch.

Usually with passion projects such as “Anonymous” one can usually find something to like, some sort of messy charm to the film that makes it worth watching despite its flaws.

However, “Anonymous” makes the biggest mistake a film can make: It’s boring, presenting a half-baked — at least in the film — theory that suggests a lowly commoner such as William Shakespeare could never have the writing ability of the high royalty the Earl of Oxford inhabits. There might be some clumsy social commentary to be pulled from that, but to do so would require more thought and effort than Roland Emmerich appears to have put into this mess of a film, so it simply doesn’t seem worth it. And watching the film? Maybe a good idea if you’re looking for something to put you to sleep in five minutes, because to sit through “Anonymous” is a chore — in every sense of the word.

Printed on Friday, October 28, 2011 as: 'Anonymous' suffers from convoluted plot