[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
I'd rather have seen a Noises Off-style story about what's going on backstage at the modern-day framing-device production that opens Anonymous — actors rushing to their places; the stage manager lighting torches with one of those little lighters chefs use to fire a crème brulee — than the film I got. Of course, I'd rather have seen a root canal than what I got; I recoiled physically from the trailer all "ohhhh no no no no no," because if a buddy/heist movie is Buntnip, a costume drama concerning Shakespeare and the dirty-haired era in which he worked is…whatever the opposite of that is. Red Byptonite?
Doesn't matter. A costume drama/conspiracy pic that attempts to argue for historical William Shakespeare (the enthusiastic Rafe Spalls) as an illiterate creeper, whom the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans, one of the only compelling things in the film) uses as a writing beard via some pimping help from Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto, one of the…things in the film), is just not for me — at least, not one that takes itself and its theory this seriously. One scene in particular came to illustrate this problem: the young Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower) has just boned Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson in the flashbacks). He offends her somehow, so she squalls at him to get out, but undaunted and barely clothed in a dingy damask something-or-other, he starts sonneting at her, and she's so ensorcelled that he's getting a beej by the closing quatrain. And…look, real talk? This is why a lot of dudes start writing poetry to begin with — God knows it ain't the big bucks — and often enough, it works. Fine. Just play it that way and make the joke, instead of positioning the moment, and all the others, as a portentous slo-mo high-five between political stagecraft and the literal version. That's the issue with Anonymous. It's not that the subject isn't my thing, or that the Shakespearean quotations selected aren't imaginative, or that some of the players aren't quite up to their tasks, although those things don't help. It's that Roland Emmerich is known for, and fairly good at, ripping yarns, and he unwisely treats Anonymous like a middle-school educational-theater field trip. And that's exactly how it feels.
…Most of the time. Whenever Xavier Samuel is onscreen, it feels like a time machine back to Jersey in the '80s. "The Earl of Southampton"? Try "the Earl of South Amboy" — I haven't seen a perm that crunchy since Hunka Bunka.
The film isn't awful. Ifans is great, and the movie seems to grab its gears better whenever he's onscreen; the stunt-casting of Richardson as the younger QE and Vanessa Redgrave as the older version actually works, although Richardson is often backed by the script into corners she has to screech her way out of. (The "shocking" plot twist in the third act is probably given to Ifans to play for a reason, and he's fantastic in the scene even though the twist itself is risible.) But it's often dull, and too dour for its own good.
The nomination is for Best Costumes, and while I will give extra credit for Robert Cecil's specialty breastplate that is fitted for his spinal disability, I will take the points back again just as quickly for the Bon Jovi extensions on Samuel.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.