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Film Review: Anonymous

Anonymous (2011; Directed by Roland Emmerich)

In the short history of this blog, my consideration of the Shakespearean authorship question in light of the release of Roland Emmerich’s big screen fictionalization of the Oxfordian theory has been the single most viewed post by a ratio of 2-to-1 to the next nearest contender. It’s entirely possible that online surfers coasted this way in search of a decent review of Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like The Sun, but the search terms suggest otherwise. It’s some perspective on Emmerich’s movie they were after, and since I had not actually seen it at the time, I can’t help but feel that they came away disappointed.

anonymous-movie-poster-01Although I had next to no expectations of Anonymous resembling a worthwhile film experience in any way, as the page hits climbed, I felt ever more compelled – nay, obliged – to grant it a viewing, if only to complete the critical circle. Could it really be as execrably bad and as flagrantly historically nonsensical as those sniffing academics authorities judged it? Could it actually live up to the tremendous Badfilm potential of an Elizabethan period literary drama from the co-director of Independence Day and the Godzilla rehash? Mustn’t I ultimately formulate my own considered readings of it, having derived so much web traffic with an invocation without an interpretation?

Having at last scratched the proverbial itch, I can say that as cinema, Anonymous is hardly worth the analysis I came to imagine it my solemn blogging duty to provide. This movie is almost incontrovertibly awful, not merely fundamentally ill-conceived but consistently poorly-executed as well. Emmerich and his team have no earthly idea what exactly they want this mock-historical mess to be, and horribly disfigure not only Elizabethan and Jacobean history but the Shakespearean canon as well in the search of an animating purpose. Simon Schama dubbed Anonymous “inadvertently comic”, but that feels far too generous; to say that this film achieves anything inadvertently implies that it might also have a chance to do something advertently. It had not a hope in hell of that; its only laudable qualities are arrived at accidentally.

If you’ve ever wanted to see William Shakespeare portrayed as an illiterate, uneloquent, avaricious fraud, Robert Cecil as a malevolent hunchback, and Queen Elizabeth I giving a BJ to her own bastard son, then Anonymous is certainly the period drama for you. Stripping the Oxfordian theory of its leaps of scholarly imagination and the Shakespearean canon of its percolating wit and revolutionary invention, Emmerich’s film (from the script of John Orloff, who has also done a Frontline episode on the authorship question) is a murky and depressing picture both in visual and metaphoric terms.

Anonymous imagines that the true author of Shakespeare’s work was an English lord, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans with far more soulfulness than this pulpy material deserves). Oxford feeds his secretly-composed plays to the public at first through the conduit of the young Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), who sees to it that they are performed in the Rose Theatre (and later the freshly-built Globe), first anonymously and then under the name of a publicity-starved actor (Rafe Spall) who finagles his way into his immortal role. The obvious political valences of the plays, combined with the apparent class bias against the theatre among the aristocracy, provide what measure of explanation is required for Oxford’s desire for anonymity. Nonetheless, the performances eventually run afoul of the Cecils, father Sir William (David Thewlis) and son Sir Robert (Edward Hogg), the Queen’s closest advisors and Machiavellian power dealers who have a complicated and mostly antagonistic relation to Oxford. When a production of Richard III coincides a bit too closely with the coup/revolt of the 2nd Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), matters come to a particular climax and precipitate what amounts to literary history’s greatest secret.

My, what a long… manuscript you have there.

The film’s plot is mostly a quasi-historical peg upon which to hang a litany of trashy pulp elements (affairs! murder! betrayal! incest!) to keep the bored rubes engaged, like proletarian clowns in Shakespeare’s (de Vere’s?) histories. Although Emmerich and Orloff evidently conceive of Anonymous as an iconoclastic potboiler celebrating tragic creativity and challenging epistemological orthodoxy, it ends up making The Tudors seem like a sober-minded documentary program in comparison. The overspiced stew of frothy intrigue and empty referentiality leaves even the willing doubter of the Stratfordian status quo with an unpleasant aftertaste. Instead of rendering a stance of scholarly rebellion into a rousing historical drama, Anonymous discredits the already-tenuous Oxfordian theory with its very ineptitude. At least Oliver Stone’s fever-dream Kennedy assassination conspiracies made for a cracking film experience; Emmerich’s confounding mash-up of Elizabethan politics, literature, and culture is limp and poorly.

His cast, generally of second-rate British thespianic quality, is not of much help, but there’s little that even a superior ensemble could do with such material. Aside from Ifans and the usually-reliable Thewlis (who mostly vanishes behind old-age-makeup, croaking utterances, and a wizardly beard like a Puritan Dumbledore), Vanessa Redgrave is likely the biggest name here, and she is trapped in an ugly version of Elizabeth in her twilight years as a dilapidated, hysterical drag queen (Miss Havisham is a Playboy Bunny in comparison). Redgrave gives the nonsense the old college try, but even an actress of her talents cannot escape the cage of such retrograde character writing (to make the incest angle even more unsettling, the younger Elizabeth is played by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely Richardson). The bruised, suffering idealist Jonson, meanwhile, is a role that would seem to demand the particular talents of James McAvoy, but Armesto comes across as little more than his non-union Mexican equivalent.

I take it this was not after a performance of “Two Noble Kinsmen”.

Improbably (though perhaps not), it’s Spall who is the film’s most enjoyable presence despite being placed in its most thankless role. By necessity in a fictionalized treatise on the righteousness of the Oxfordian theory, the historical Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon must be characterized as a philistinic patsy incapable of aesthetic transcendence, if not an inebriated, murderous cheat. An undercurrent of snobbish elitism is not required to be convinced that de Vere wrote “Shakespeare”, but it certainly seems to wash the dish down more easily, and tends to be the accompanying aperitif of choice for its proponents. Such is the case in Anonymous, and the education-driven social mobility that the Stratford Shakespeare represents (and was entirely common at the time, as Schama discusses) is directly targeted for mockery. In the film, Shakespeare extorts enough money from the vulnerable Oxford to act the gentleman, and even to acquire a family coat of arms, complete with a Latin motto he cannot pronounce (“non sanz droict”) and whose bitter irony he is too dim-witted to appreciate (it translates as “not without right”).

But in the midst of so many scowling, power-playing aristos with dark designs and hidden traumas, the joie de vivre of Spall’s simple actor is a breath of fresh air. His Shakespeare may be a greedy, unlearned bumpkin, but at least he’s happy. Ifans’ de Vere suffers ever so nobly for his art, deriving little pleasure and much self-doubt from its success and characterizing his writing process as the only way for him to keep the demons of madness at bay. But Spall, in a limited comic-caricature way, summons the Bard of pure elation and populist engagement rather than the tragic, isolated genius in his tomb-like mansion that Ifans is burdened with.

For all of its copious, crippling flaws, Anonymous is at its best and purest when its pulp assumptions meet those of Shakespeare’s work in contemporary performance. If Anonymous has practically none of Shakespeare in Love‘s wit, it does manage to appreciate the Bard’s output as a mass cultural medium in its original incarnation on a more basic level than the self-aware 1999 Best Picture winner did. That this appreciation itself undermines the film’s historical-conspiracy thesis makes its iteration that much more interesting. When the fradulent playwright Shakespeare bows for his adoring audience after another theatrical triumph and then literally crowd-surfs on their supporting hands, it is therefore at once a laughable image and a profound one. That de Vere (and by extension, Emmerich and Orloff) sneers from above at this plebeian display encapsulates the disdain towards popular taste and mass culture felt by both Anonymous and the Oxfordian ideology. Among its many crimes against taste, cinema, art, and history, this film’s most egregious one is to lose track of the core humanity of the Shakespearean canon. That this quality shines through nonetheless testifies to its sublime endurance.

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Categories: Film, History, Literature, Reviews

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