TIFF Report 2.2: ANONYMOUS—But Mrs. Lincoln, Was It a Good Movie?

So there you have it. If you read the last post all the way through, you don’t need to see Anonymous. But would you want to in any case? Authorship issues aside, Anonymous is a movie, so we can ask how it stacks up under the criteria by which we normally judge movies.

The verdict is: pretty badly; after all, it is a Roland Emmerich movie. As with all Emmerich movies, the best thing about this one is the special effects. The re-creation of Elizabethan London is really quite something, certainly the best ever on film. The long shots that require CGI, that is. By contrast, the sets are mediocre and the set design, costumes, and makeup are amateur compared to the best recent costume dramas about this period—certainly Elizabeth, still the standard, but even its wretched sequel. Perhaps because I was sitting in the first row, the makeup struck me as particularly inept. Every single facial hair on every single male character stood out in all its grotesque fakery.

You’d think that the acting from the surprisingly star-studded cast propels the movie. To the contrary. Rhys Ifans as Oxford proves once and for all that his specialty is halfwits, like Hugh Grant’s idiot nudist roommate in Notting Hill and Puff the ape-man in Human Nature. Stratfordians might conclude that he’s therefore typecast as Oxford, and his acting would not gainsay them. His Oxford seems near catatonia much of the time and has exactly one facial expression, the smirk of a man threatening to twirl his fake moustache. Or perhaps simply adjust it, since it is never on quite straight. Since part of the Oxfordian impulse is the conviction that the author must somehow be worthy of the plays, this is not an effective performance. As for Vanessa Redgrave, she must have wanted to play old Elizabeth just to stick it to Dame Judi Dench. I may be the only person on Earth to have seen this performance immediately after her stunning turn as Volumnia in Coriolanus; I recommend the experience for the contrast. Redgrave doesn’t quite bring Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II to mind, but she does judder about in her final scene withOxford, in one of those puffy things we see in portraits ofElizabeth, like the tennis-playing blancmanges in Monty Python. Which is typical of the rest of the cast. Even generally excellent performers such as David Thewlis, who plays Old Cecil, are ineffective (Thewlis decisively loses the battle with his long white fake beard). Rafe Spall has expressed relief that he hasn’t been torn a new one for his portrayal of Shakespeare. Well, Rafe, your movie has only just had its world premiere. Once it’s widely reviewed, you’ll have enough bad notices to last the rest of your life. But we have to reserve special censure for the performance of excerpts from Shakespeare’s actual plays, which are necessarily a significant component of the film. The acting in these is, without exception, just plain terrible, on the level of high schoolers reciting poetry they don’t understand.

One can judge Anonymous in many ways; if one judges it in terms of its genre, Elizabethan costume drama, then it comes in at the bottom of recent efforts; not even in the same city, let alone the same ballpark, as Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love, and a couple of cuts below Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

How is Anonymous as a piece of screenwriting, then? There’s a boatload—an aircraft carrier’s worth—of factual inaccuracies, which the truth squads will get to in due course, but that isn’t what I mean. (I’ll note the inaccuracies I found in a third post.) I mean to ask, is it a success on its own terms? That depends on what the terms are, and the fascinating thing about this movie is that it has several terms working at cross-purposes. How is it, judged by currentHollywood standards of screenwriting? How is it as a potentialHollywood blockbuster? And how is it as a brief for the Oxfordian cause?

Emmerich’s films have two distinguishing marks. One is the high quality of the special effects, which I’ve already discussed. The other is exaggeration of incident to the point of outrageousness. Independence Day has Vivica A. Fox outrunning a fireball caused by the destruction of Los Angeles and Jeff Goldblum hacking into the alien mothership with his Mac (in the days before product placement came to rule, no less). Godzilla has the Chrysler Building decapitated, just for the sake of showing that supremely beautiful crown crash to earth. (Yes, I know this also happened in Armageddon, but that was directed by Emmerich’s only competitor in the Ridiculously Overblown sweepstakes, Michael Bay. Great minds really do think alike, don’t they?) Apart from the burning of the Globe there’s no wholesale physical destruction in Anonymous, but as Emmerich has been quoted, “Look, if we provoke, let’s provoke all the way.” It isn’t enough for him to assert that Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays; he has to adopt the extreme version of the Prince Tudor theory, on which not only is Southampton the bastard son of Elizabeth and Oxford (the restrained version of this theory), Oxford himself is Elizabeth’s bastard son. Many Oxfordians are uneasy with the Prince Tudor theory because they feel it discredits their position (which says everything you need to know). That Emmerich adopts it tells you where his real interests lie.

He’s in it, of course, for the money. Emmerich is a Hollywoodfilmmaker, so when faced with a choice between what he thinks will put asses in seats and arguing for a cause hardly anybody takes seriously, there’s no question what he’ll do. He’ll claim in publicity materials that he’s blowing the lid off the Shakespeare conspiracy (as Professor Holger Schott Syme reminds us in this superb post) but his movie is hardly going to constitute an argument for the Oxfordian cause. Anonymous is not a PBS documentary; Emmerich will go for what he perceives to be the greater entertainment value every time. Let’s look at one example that has already been flagged in the blogosphere as a Class A howler. It’s well known that somebody paid to have Shakespeare’s company perform Richard II right before the Essex Rebellion and that Elizabeth is reputed to have said “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” (For background, Greenblatt discusses the incident in Will and the World, and Jonathan Bate marshals the evidence that, alas, Elizabeth never really said that, in Soul of the Age.) Emmerich stages the play—but it’s Richard III, not Richard II. Are we to conclude that Emmerich and his screenwriter, John Orloff, are so stupid or indifferent they can’t be bothered with the facts?

I think not. I’m sure they know that the play was Richard II; they believe that making it Richard III offers greater entertainment value, and it’s clear why. Richard III was allegedly a hunchback; Robert Cecil was a hunchback; using Richard III allows them to suggest that Oxford was directly mocking Robert Cecil. This doesn’t make sense as the behavior of a rational character but it calls back to the scene in which Oxford presented Hamlet at court and mocked William Cecil through the character of Polonius. (The fact that in that Hamlet production Gertrude is dressed as the Queen, which ought to be at least as outrageous, almost gets lost.) This calls Oxford’s sanity into question (what do Emmerich and Orloff think he was thinking, especially the second time?), but as a former wannabe screenwriter who’s taken his share of writing classes, I can tell you it is standard Hollywood screenwriting practice; two “moments” that speak to each other, never mind whether they are the actions of a plausible character or whether they actually add up to something by adding another level of meaning to the action. Similarly, Christopher Marlowe died in 1593, but it makesHollywood sense to have him kibitizing in 1599 (and killed for betraying Shakespeare’s secret) because he’s the only Elizabethan playwright other than Shakespeare the typical moviegoer is likely to have heard of.

For Emmerich, perceived entertainment value will trump argument every time. And this is why I feel sorry for the Oxfordians. Emmerich has presented himself as, and for all I know really believes he is, an advocate for the Oxfordian position. He’s ripping the lid off the four-century-old conspiracy no other movie has dared to expose. Of course, that in itself is a publicity point. But Oxfordians are just deluding themselves if they think this movie is made for them. They are a tiny minority in a tiny group—people interested enough in Shakespeare to care about these biographical issues. Emmerich did not get this movie greenlit by saying he had this audience in his pocket. And this means there is no way Anonymous can be taken as an argument forOxford, because it shows too many things that just didn’t happen.

Thus, no matter what Emmerich says, Anonymous is, and is intended as, make-believe. He tips his hand right there in the prologue. Perhaps Sir Derek Jacobi delivers it because Emmerich is shouting out to his memorable performance in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V, but it and the backstage scenes clearly announce: “This is a play. A fiction.” I can’t imagine that this is what Oxfordians want to see right upfront in their movie, but he doesn’t really care about them; they’re going to see the movie no matter what.

So there you have it. The bottom line is that Anonymous is so outrageous—and unentertaining—that if anything it discredits the Oxfordian position. But what about Shapiro’s concern, and the Oxfordians’ boast, that at least now the position is out there, and that down the road people will take Oxford’s claim to authorship seriously because look, there’s a movie about it? Of course I share that concern, but until the facts indicate otherwise I’d counsel not feeding the trolls. Its offensive and absurd subtext apart, this movie is neither good nor entertaining; having sat through it, I can’t see it achieving the popular success of Elizabeth or Shakespeare in Love. If it does disappear as I expect it to, its afterlife will be as a sermon to the choir, not unlike this year’s film of Atlas Shrugged. And I perceive the danger of a backlash. Especially online, it’s fashionable to counter the arguments of skeptics and atheists with the claim that they are lecturing to the indifferent masses, and none of it can be proved anyway. (Just try reading any comment thread about such issues on a site with a relatively sophisticated clientele like BoingBoing.) That is just a refusal to listen rather than an actual counterargument, but I can very easily see it being deployed against “Stratfordians.” The better response to the Oxfordian position is the mockery it deserves. There shouldn’t be any more to say aboutOxford’s claims than to repeat the only anecdote for which he was known before Looney:

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares, on his returne the Queen welcomed him home,and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.

—John Aubrey, Brief Lives

2 responses to “TIFF Report 2.2: ANONYMOUS—But Mrs. Lincoln, Was It a Good Movie?

  1. akismet-1299d252cd3c97d7df15e81177116979

    Really enjoyed your review (more like a roast) and have been sharing it on FB. Love your writing style too. I”ll be back.

  2. You wrote:
    “. . . Many Oxfordians are uneasy with the Prince Tudor theory because they feel it discredits their position (which says everything you need to know).

    You might as well have said that:” . . many Christians are uneasy with “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” because they feel it discredits their [religion} position (which says everything you need to know).” Or you could have written: :” . . many Muslims are uneasy about 9/11 because they feel it discredits their [religion} position (which says everything you need to know).” In all these cases it’s a lot more than ‘uneasiness’ — as you well know. The great bulk of ordinary followers deplore every aspect of the madness of such extremists. Also I am at a loss as to the meaning of your statement within the parentheses. Have you been taking lessons from Emmerich?

    It is unfortunate that revolutionary causes tend to attract nut-cases, here: Emmerich and the rest of the “Prince Tudor” brigade. But that fact does not destroy the fundamental theory (here that De Vere was the author “Shake-speare”).

    You also wrote:
    That Emmerich adopts it tells you where his real interests lie.

    It tells us only that Emmerich is a remarkably shallow person with little understanding of history. But — thanks — we knew that already.