Film review – Anonymous (2011)

31 October 2011
Anonymous: Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans)

Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans)

Director Roland Emmerich makes the type of cinema that is often dismissed as guilty pleasures. His films are usually spectacle driven and often reliant on big scenes of mass destruction to keep audiences passively entertained. However, unlike directors such as Transformer franchise director Michael Bay, Emmerich seems to genuinely love the craft of filmmaking and doesn’t have contempt for the audience. His films deliver the thrills and excitement through a combination of engaging characters, narratives with a reasonably coherent inner logic and actual spectacle rather than a rapidly edited illusion of excitement.

With Anonymous Emmerich has taken one of his breaks from epic disasters to make another period film. Set in England during the reign of Elizabeth I (who’s played by both Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave), Anonymous explores the fun fringe theory that William Shakespeare was a hoax. The idea is that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans and Jamie Campbell Bower), was the true author, keeping his identity secret to protect his good standing as an aristocrat and to conceal the political motivations behind the plays. The result is a melodramatic film filled with historical conspiracies, political skulduggery and sexual transgressions. It is also a remarkably restrained and complex film that explores the power that popular entertainment has to embed ideological ideas into the minds of the audiences who consume it.

Anonymous: Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave)

Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave)

The degree of seriousness in which Anonymous peruses the concept that Shakespeare was a fraud is minimal. It’s about as serious as Emmerich’s examination of climate change in The Day After Tomorrow or his exploration of the Mayan calendar in 2012. For Emmerich, the Shakespeare conspiracy is just another high concept to base a film around, no different from appropriating 1950s Hollywood alien invasion films for Independence Day or Japanese monster films for his own Godzilla. The concepts that underpin Emmerich’s films are no more than elaborate MacGuffins so getting bogged down in critiquing the historical accuracy of Anonymous is a somewhat useless pursuit. Taking the events in Anonymous at face value as if it were documentary would also be rather ironic considering how large portions of the film depict the way historical events are recreated in popular entertainment for effect.

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of Anonymous is how it engages with the idea of persuasive entertainment. Not only does the film celebrate the spectacle and excitement of Shakespearian theatre, which was the blockbuster entertainment of its time, but it also draws blatant causal links between audiences being emotionally affected by what they are seeing and then forming opinions based on those feelings. Even though it is the sympathetic characters in the film who are the ones trying to shape popular opinion through the plays, the message is clear: all art is political. One of the most impressive things about Anonymous, a film by a mass entertainment director, is how well it demonstrates the ideological power of popular culture.

Anonymous: Young Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson) and Young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower)

Young Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson) and Young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower)

Of course Anonymous itself is an ideological work. While it presents Elizabeth I sympathetically as a person, it overall regards the English monarchy in a rather sordid and critical light, especially in the extent that it is manipulated covertly by the puritan and anti-intellectual Cecil family. On the other hand, the film doesn’t have much time for the ‘masses’ either, since they are seen as a rather simplistic, fickle and easily persuaded bunch, including the illiterate buffoon actor Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). The heroes of the film are the tormented writers: the Earl of Oxford who must keep his identity a secret and his co-conspirator Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), the ‘commoner’ playwright whose own ambitions are unfulfilled. It’s a long way from the mildly conservative and centrist social cohesion message of Independence Day.

Anonymous is a curious film that on one level aims to sweep the audience away with its elaborate historical story of fraud, injustice and forbidden love and on another level is exposing the manipulative power of entertainment. Strangely it does actually work on both levels. While the initial time shifts are distracting and its long running time could have been trimmed, it is a remarkably well-sustained piece of cinema. Just don’t worry too much about the historical accuracy. Instead enjoy the various references to Shakespeare’ plays that pop up throughout the film and look out for the moment when the slow clap is seemingly invented during a performance of Hamlet.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – 2012 (2009)

8 November 2009
2012

Lilly Curtis (Morgan Lily), Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) and Kate Curtis (Amanda Peet)

If you want to make a film about the end of the world then Roland Emmerich really is the director that you want in charge. Emmerich has created scenes of mass destruction previously in films such as Independence Day, which took its inspiration and politics from 1950s Red Menace alien invasion films, and The Day After Tomorrow, which took its cues from the at-the-time growing awareness about climate change. For 2012 Emmerich has taken the theory that the world will face a global cataclysmic disaster towards the end of 2012. The theory is based on a generally discredited interpretation of the Mayan calendar but it is nevertheless a great excuse to provide audiences with a visual orgy of utter destruction. There’s a scientific explanation provided in 2012 about what is happening but all you really need to know is that a whole bunch of earthquakes, volcanos and tsunamis are coming to seriously ruin Christmas. To Emmerich’s credit he provides an engaging spectacle of mass carnage and even builds a credible narrative to facilitate it. For the type of film that it is, 2012 is quite good.

2012

Laura Wilson (Thandie Newton), Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt)

Like many of Emmerich’s films, 2012 contains a lengthy build-up to the action where we are introduced to a host of characters from around the world who are either experts who are aware of what is to come or everyday people caught up in the carnage. Included in the mostly strong cast are John Cusack playing the Everyman character Jackson Curtis, a failed novelist who is separated from his wife, and Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the Righteous Scientist character Adrian Helmsley who stands up to the government lackeys who want to keep what is happening a secret. Emmerich also impressively includes a subplot about an Indian family and a Chinese family, reminding us that the End of Days affects people other than just Americans. Naturally an absurd degree of coincidence will ultimately link these characters together but getting to know them is important so that their plight through the film engages our attention. This way we don’t focus too long on the fact that billions and billions of people are being obliterated. There is also a dog for us to worry about too because when the world is coming to an end, we will still care about the fate of one single little dog.

2012The big special effect sequences depicting a lot of stuff getting destroyed mainly consist of elaborate CGIs but they are mostly exhilarating and emotionally engaging. Curtis and his family’s escape first from an earthquake in Los Angeles, and then a volcano in Yellowstone are incredibly impressive sequences that seriously get the adrenalin pumping. While the CGIs work when being used to replicate recognisable objects they are less successful in creating the unfamiliar objects that feature heavily in the final act of the film and overall 2012 does lose its momentum about half way through. Nevertheless, the resolution is serviceable and for the most part 2012 delivers in terms of spectacle and character engagement.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

27 December 2008

The original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the all time great classical Hollywood films. It was the first significant Hollywood science fiction film and one of the first films to ideologically engage with the political climate at the time by tackling anti-Communist/Cold War paranoia. Despite its big budget it was a narrative driven film with more emphasis placed on dramatic action rather than spectacle and effects. The eclectic and reliable director Robert Wise, who began his career in film as the editor for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), directed the film and the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the music. Herrmann’s use of the theremin for the music in The Day the Earth Stood Still was hugely influential, making the theremin the standard sound for all science fiction soundtracks throughout the 1950s. The idea of remaking such a definitive and important film seems at first glance to be incredibly foolhardy, however this new 2008 film should not be automatically dismissed. It is by no means as good as the original but by taking the central premise of the original and maintaining its core ideology in order to address contemporary issues, this remake becomes a film that is worth considering.

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