[Edited to correct a memory lapse; I’d mistakenly thought that Dean Devlin, not Roland Emmerich, had directed Independence Day and Godzilla. Thanks to @am_klaafe for setting me straight.]
Toward the middle of Anonymous the drunken, illiterate imbecile William Shakespeare, taking a curtain call for Henry V, a play he didn’t write, falls off the stage. He’s caught by the groundlings in the front row and—passed hand to hand. You read me right: Shakespeare may not have written Henry V, but he did invent crowdsurfing. Unintentionally.
This scene tells you everything you need to know about Anonymous. This is a Roland Emmerich movie, as ridiculous as only Emmerich can make ’em, but it’s about something far scarier than aliens, undersea lizards, or the end of the world by climate change. It’s about a theory: the theory that one Edward de Vere, a loutish sixteenth-century minor noble, a murderer best known to history as the butt of a fart joke, wrote the works that have come down to us under the name “William Shakespeare.” That theory has been around for the better part of a century but in the absence of anything resembling evidence for it, its adherents have long been regarded as the academic equivalent of Trekkies. Cosplaying Trekkies.
Watching Anonymous, it’s hard to dispute that judgment. Shakespeare’s crowdsurfing is far from the only outrageous moment in this movie. According to Emmerich, de Vere was some kind of Mozart-level prodigy, producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for private performance before Elizabeth I at the age of eight (and playing Puck as an adorable winged cherub). Later, he seduces that same Queen with Romeo and Juliet. Their love child grows up to be the Earl of Southampton, in real life one of Shakespeare’s patrons, later nearly executed for his role in that bit of tomfoolery known as the Essex Rebellion. And in a revelation straight out of Chinatown, de Vere himself turns out to be another bastard son of Elizabeth. This isn’t history; it’s bodice ripping. True, Emmerich didn’t make it up; this “Prince Tudor Theory” is seriously advanced by some “Oxfordians” (de Vere was Earl of Oxford, hence the term). But it’s still bodice ripping.
And there’s plenty more evidence to suggest that Emmerich doesn’t take his own premise any more seriously than he did with Independence Day or Godzilla. For example, as if Shakespeare weren’t buffoonish enough already, when he blackmails de Vere into continuing to provide him with plays, he disguises himself with a false nose on a stick. The man has the Globe Theater’s whole makeup cabinet to draw on, and the best he can do is the equivalent of Groucho glasses? Most tellingly, Emmerich has Sir Derek Jacobi deliver a prologue and epilogue. Now, Sir Derek is one of the most prominent contemporary Oxfordians, and he was memorable as the Chorus in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V, so it makes sense that he would do this. But even while he states the Oxfordian case actors are preparing for their roles in the movie behind his back, mocking any claim he may make to veracity. Indeed, when it suited his purpose (in a reply to this post by Holger Schott Syme—scroll down) the screenwriter, John Orloff, pointed to this very framing device as proof that Anonymous is not advancing a serious historical thesis. It’s only a movie.
But it’s not a very entertaining movie. Emmerich has chosen to fragment the narrative into three time streams, jumping back and forth in a manner calculated to confuse even an attentive viewer. The performances, too, leave much to be desired. Rhys Ifans first came to attention playing halfwits (Hugh Grant’s nudist flatmate in Notting Hill, Puff the ape-man in Human Nature); that experience serves him well in a performance in which he seems to have only one facial expression, that of a man about to twirl his fake moustache—or adjust it, since it never seems to be on quite straight. Vanessa Redgrave flounces around in her Queen Elizabeth hoop skirt like one of the tennis-playing blancmanges in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. As Shakespeare Rafe Spall, son of the great Timothy Spall, proves that acting talent is not inherited. The numerous snippets of Shakespeare’s plays contained in the film are terrible, with unnatural line readings and high-school-level acting. In fact, the only outstanding thing about Anonymous is its special effects—the CGI reconstruction of Elizabethan London is certainly the best ever done—but did you expect otherwise from a Roland Emmerich movie?
As for Anonymous‘s historical inaccuracies, already catalogued throughout the blogosphere (in addition toHolger Schott Syme, linked above, see especially Alex Knapp and Stephen Marche for first-class takedowns—and oh, there’s also me)? They don’t bother me as much as they might because I understand the screenwriting choices they represent. Christopher Marlowe, stabbed above the eye in 1593, depicted as alive and kibitizing circa 1598? Easy: Marlowe is the only other Elizabethan playwright average moviegoers are likely to have heard of. De Vere giving the Essex conspirators Richard III for a command performance in aid of their rebellion, when the play was really Richard II and the Queen, according to legend, took it as a treasonous direct challenge (“I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?”)? Richard III was a hunchback. Robert Cecil, enemy of de Vere and Essex, was a hunchback. Playing Richard III will whip the groundlings into a frenzy against Cecil and Essex will triumph, or so Essex’s thinking goes. Playing Richard II, not so much. The deliberate historical distortion makes for the more “entertaining” (that is, Hollywood-acceptable) writing choice. It’s even better because it calls back to an earlier scene in which de Vere staged Hamlet for the Queen, featuring a Polonius recognizably based on William Cecil, Robert’s father. Structure is everything in screenwriting class, and Orloff would certainly have gotten an A in Writers’ Boot Camp.
Much better, more entertaining movies have been at least as inaccurate, and if that were all there were to Anonymous, we could dismiss it as a costume drama a cut or two below, say, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (the mother-daughter tag team of Redgrave and Joely Richardson is no match for Cate Blanchett all on her lonesome). But of course that’s not all there is to it. A movie like Elizabeth distorts history in the service of entertainment without claiming that history is wrong. Anonymous distorts history in the service of an alternative view of history. Emmerich and Orloff have been all over the Internet lately, generating PR in anticipation of the release of Anonymous. When “debating” actual experts, they fall back on saying it’s only a movie (though in that case why are they “debating” at all?). But when there’s nobody to call them on it they present themselves as crusading Oxfordians, as in this video in which Emmerich recycles some tired, oft-refuted Oxfordian talking points.
Notice that even here, in full-on Oxfordian mode, Emmerich isn’t seriously trying to convince anybody, just advertising the movie. As with the movie itself it’s Oxfordians who really should be taking offense, because his attitude toward their cherished position is frivolous. Hardened old cynic that I am, I’d love to think that even throughout his and Orloff’s PR tour, he’s laughing behind his sleeve at the credulous Trekkies who think he is really on their side rather than simply out to make a buck (although Orloff really does seem to be a Trekkie, complete with tricorder).
I wish I could leave it at that, consigning Shakespeare’s crowdsurfing to the gallery of goofy Emmerich classics where Jeff Goldblum hacks into an alien mothership’s computer with his Mac. And I would, but for one thing. Emmerich, Orloff, and their studio, Sony Pictures, have crossed a line by preparing “educational” materials that are actually supposed to expound the Oxfordian position in schools. As this item from the Daily Beast relates, Sony is preparing to release a “documentary” about the authorship debate produced by an Emmerich-owned company, and has prepared lesson plans for teachers. One look at those lesson plans makes abundantly clear that they are just more PR for the movie, and you can easily see why the filmmakers would go this route. There’s no better way to turn a movie—especially one the studio expects will tank—into a cash machine than to get it assigned in schools. But to do that, Sony and Emmerich need to change the way Shakespeare is taught; to make the authorship debate an integral part of presenting the plays. And since there is even less evidence for Oxfordianism than for geocentrism (can’t you see the Sun moving around the Earth? Who are you going to believe, some academic “scientist” or your own eyes?), this is where the genial cynicism I’ve been imputing to Emmerich turns sour and, if not exactly evil, at least pernicious.
There are two fundamental truths about writers, including Shakespeare: they do research, and they make things up. By denying those truths, Anonymous manages to be both boring and false. As linked just above, bad word of mouth has led Sony to cut back Friday’s scheduled wide release to just 250 screens. That’s the right move for a film that is both boring and cynical, and deserves to vanish by Halloween.