By Cameron French
TORONTO (Reuters) - Known for blockbuster movie hits that are often panned by critics, Roland Emmerich is winning early praise for a change with his new "Anonymous," which challenges Shakespeare's authorship of plays and poems.
The subject matter is a departure for the German-born Emmerich, who has spent the last 15 years knocking down skyscrapers and unleashing giant waves on cities in special effects-laden movies such as "Independence Day", "The Day After Tomorrow", "Godzilla", and "2012".
In "Anonymous", which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, he uses special effects to build, rather than destroy, constructing an intricate recreation of Elizabethan London as backdrop for a tale focused on the argument of so-called "Anti-Stratfordians".
At a news conference, Emmerich said the script penned by "A Mighty Heart" writer John Orloff drew him to the project that he readily admitted was outside his normal comfort zone.
"My friends said 'are you really sure you want to do this?. But in the end, you have to just believe in yourself," he told reporters.
The film posits that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was responsible for the remarkable collection of plays and poems that have made William Shakespeare the most revered name in English-language literature.
De Vere is one of a group 16th-century figures -- Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are also popular suspects -- believed by some to be the true author of Shakespeare's works.
"Anonymous" weaves in the question of Shakespeare's authorship with the story of the 1601 Essex rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I, and portrays Shakespeare as a drunken wag who can barely write his own name.
EMMERICH WINS PRAISE
The Hollywood Reporter called the film's argument "historical rubbish", but described it as easily Emmerich's best film, which "steers a coherent path through a complex bit of Tudor history while establishing a highly credible atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue."
British newspaper The Guardian looked past any assessment of historical accuracy, writing, "Emmerich's meticulously crafted and often well-acted expose of the 'real' William Shakespeare is shocking only in that it is rather good."
Members of the predominantly British cast admitted to varying degrees of skepticism about Shakespeare's legitimacy.
"I think of the thing that's fascinating still today, how such a huge diverse body of work could be written by one person," said Rafe Spall, who plays Shakespeare in the film.
Rhys Ifans, who plays the Earl of Oxford, went a step further. "I'm not necessarily convinced that Oxford is the author of these plays, but I am definitely absolutely adamant that it was not the guy called William Shakespeare from Stratford," he said.
The film, which will be released widely on October 28, also stars David Thewlis and Sebastian Armesto, and features mother and daughter Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson as Queen Elizabeth at old and young ages.
For his part, Emmerich said he did not plan to abandon the summer blockbuster-type films that have made him famous.
"I'm happy I made ("Anonymous")...because I want to alternate my big movies with movies like this," he said.
(Reporting by Cameron French; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)