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'Anonymous' by Roland Emmerich and 'Melancholia' starring Kirsten Dunst highlight Philadelphia Film Festival


Philadelphia Film Festival: An end of the world drama for the art-house crowd and a scandalous tale that questions the validity of William Shakespeare’s fame.


This weekend, both Shakespeare and the end of the world were trending movie themes at the Philadelphia Film Festival. Want to take a guess which one was helmed by disaster movie aficionado Roland Emmerich  (Independence Day)? The answer may surprise you. Rhys Ifans in Anonymous-credit to Sony/Columbia

Emmerich, long known for tackling various mega budget disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, actually did not take on the “end of the world” drama that screened this weekend. He played entirely against type to deliver Anonymous, a costume period thriller about none other than William Shakespeare.

Say what?!

It’s true. Anonymous is not about the return of the ice age or aliens invading the planet. It’s a fictional story that proposes the theory that Shakespeare was a fraud who never really wrote any of the now famous plays that have now immersed our culture.

So who did write them? According to the film, it was none other than Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford. In a time when writers were constantly jailed and frowned upon for being salacious, having someone of lesser importance take credit for De Vere’s classic works seemed like the only probable option.

The ridiculous story basically follows the process in which meddling writer Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) is recruited by De Vere in an effort to bring his pen to the stage, and also to act as a means of exposure to real life tyranny and injustice occurring throughout the kingdom.  De Vere means for Johnson to take credit for the works, but in an unexpected moment during the first play premiere, an actor known as Will Shakespeare (here portrayed as a conniving, half brained drunk) pledges ownership instead. This leads to a brushfire of popularity due to the high quality of the content.



There’s no shortage of scandal in Anonymous (there’s more drama here than an episode of Jersey Shore), but keeping track of it is another story. Director Emmerich has already shown a knack for crafting engaging entertainment, but he’s hardly adept at balancing the various story threads here. The film jumps back and forth between past and present unconvincingly, and it’s hard to remember who is playing who. That said, the performances, including an especially hammy turn by Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, are fun to watch, and Anonymous overall is a well crafted fusion of scandalous non-sense and Cliff Notes history.  



For a movie about doomsday, you’d think Emmerich’s paws would be all over Melancholia. However, that surprisingly isn’t the case here. Furthermore, you won’t find any raging tsunamis or apocalyptic earthquakes in the art house “end of days” drama. In fact, this is probably the absolute last thing you’d expect to see from controversial director Lars Von Trier, infamous for the Bjork tearjerker Dancer in the Dark (starring Film Festival movie "Collaborator star David Morse), as well as the recent Antichrist.

Taken literally, the story is about the emergence of a massive planet which has reportedly hidden itself behind the sun for many years.Melancholia- Photo: Magnolia Pictures With an unknown disruption in the balance of the solar system, the planet breaks out of orbit, passing various other planets, straight on course for Earth. Though theorists argue that the planet will merely pass by, trepidation rises at the possibility that it may in fact collide with Earth.

The story, however, unfolds on a much smaller scale. Melancholia is about two sisters, both of which are concentrated upon in two separate sections. The first half of the movie takes place at a wedding as is concentrated on Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a new bride en route to her reception, husband in tow.

What exactly is affecting Justine isn’t made fully clear, but it is evident that she is a very troubled individual. Arriving more than two hours late to her own reception, she wanders about the event saturated in apathy and appearing half asleep. For entire stretches she escapes, at one point removing her entire wedding garment to take an extended bath, while impatient guests wait to cut the cake. Von Trier has a knack for creating discomfort, and the entire wedding sequence could easily rank as one of the most uneasy matrimonial sequences ever put to celluloid.

The second half of the film focuses on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and takes place after the wedding. Claire is clearly an enabler, tending to her sister’s debilitating depression frequently and effortlessly throughout this portion of the film. She’s balances that with a struggle of her own depressive highly anxious state, further magnified by the threat of a large looming planet possibly crashing into earth.



On top of everything, she must deal with her research oriented scientist husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who unintentionally offers no real comfort for her stressed state. As Melancholia grows closer and the threat intensifies, the fears and weaknesses of all three characters are tested and exposed.  

 Is Melancholia an actual planet, or just heavy symbolism representing depression, coping mechanisms, and the universal fear of death? I’m sure there are heavy arguments on both sides, but the truth lies somewhere outside the box for sure.

The bottom line is that a film like this is a perpetual conversation piece, one that encourages audiences to think. The performances are outstanding, especially Dunst, who has never had more of an opportunity in her entire career to exhibit raw talent. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro stages it magnificently, beautifully capturing the scope of a rural setting, punctuating everything with a swelling score.

Love it or hate it, this is as close to watching art in motion as one’s likely to see, and there’s a beauty and sadness to Melancholia that’s sure to linger afterwards.

Continue to check out Philly2Philly for coverage of the Philadelphia Film Festival!

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Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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