Running Time: 130 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Roland Emmerich
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson
Every historical film, every one of them, should have appended to its’ ending the epilogue from Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE where the inimitable Criswell intones in his most serious voice – Can you prove it didn’t happen? It’s the same impeccable logic that George W. used and 200 million Americans approved of before invading Iraq. Can you prove you have no WMDs? Can you prove it didn’t happen?
In a way I’m somewhat cheered that Roland Emmerich’s film ANONYMOUS has attracted the attention of Oxfordian debunkers for being inaccurate. I don’t know why they bothered. There is very little information extant about William Shakespeare and apparently his family tree only goes back as far as his grandfather. There is absolutely no documentation or any other sort of evidence linking Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the oldest peerage in England, with the plays of William Shakespeare.
So if there is no documentation to the story, but you want to tell the story, then you’ll have to make it up out of the whole cloth, as they say. Imagine everything. And that’s what ANONYMOUS does. If the proposition is that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare, then this is how it COULD have been done. And thus begins our yarn.
Voltaire said: What is history but fables agreed upon (or something very near that). Recently Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS showed Hitler and his underlings dying in a Parisian movie theatre bombing. Since WW2 is still in living memory, most sentient beings in the western world know that this didn’t really happen. So the film fits in with the Alternative History genre. It is a deliberate attempt to distort reality to go for a bit of a ride. The thing is historical movies have always been alternative histories. It’s hilarious to watch the promotional films publicizing C. B. De Mille’s historical extravaganzas, especially touting the long and arduous and expensive pains Mr. De Mille took to render his films absolutely authentic and faithful to history, usually employing the phrase “down to the smallest detail”. There he is catching an extra with the wrong hairstyle, a slave wearing a wristwatch, etc. (It’s interesting to see third generation film “educators” repeat this old chestnut as if it were fact.) To watch one of his films set in a period one is familiar with is even more comical. But when we’re talking about events 800 years ago, or 2,000 years ago, how many people are familiar with the ending of say the Third Crusade as they are with WW2? The further back we go, even the more serious historical films resemble the alternative history of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. They are nothing more than, in Bill Hicks’ phrase, “a ride”. Whether the ride is a good one or a bad one is all that is important. ANONYMOUS is a ride, and a good one, through the world of London in 1598. As documentary history it might stink, however, but that’s not important except for professionals with a dog in this fight.
I’m not very knowledgeable about the Tudor era, and I did look up a lot of stuff I didn’t know, such as the character of William Cecil, the dates of Edward De Vere and the years Shakespeare was active. Other things I did know, such as the deliberate understatement of Shakespeare’s education and his middle class background in order to not only strengthen the Oxfordian argument but to cast him as a buffoon and a hick. Of course he could read and write, he was required to know these things. He could also declaim poetry, a lost art today. Education was a hard row to hoe. Even in the days of Bat Masterson and the American Frontier of the mid-nineteenth century, an 8th grade education was considered complete. A university degree was for dilettantes. I saw a test given to those who hope to matriculate the 8th grade and I don’t think there are many college graduates who could get anywhere near a 50 on it. Standards change. Ours today are quite lax. Shakespeare’s schooling was rigorous if relatively brief. On the other hand Oxford went to Cambridge when he was 8 but never graduated.
The film is full of contrivances; it is double bookended, the story of The Earl of Oxford is told by Ben Johnson, and introduced by Derek Jacobi as an actor hurrying to a New York Broadway stage to set the tale up. If you’re interested enough in the subject, then you have to agree to allow the premise to be played out in front of you. Buy the premise, you buy the bit. It was good that an action director is directing the film. I’ve never seen anything by Roland Emmerich before, and, truly, I haven’t wanted to see anything he’s directed before. People were extremely derisory about his remake of GODZILLA but I’m old fashioned enough not to criticize works of art without having seen or read them. As a Philistine he brings a real vulgar energy to what could be a stuttering and preening recitation of intellectual points. Emmerich has gone on record as loathing Shakespeare. It reminds me of people who come up to me and announce, proudly, that they don’t like CITIZEN KANE and don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s the way they say it, as if its both an accomplishment and a statement of confidence in their own originality and intellectual independence. That might be a tree but they don’t see it. Emmerich’s intellectual distance and desire to please his audience moves the story along.
There are plenty of films about writers which show writers working with incidents of their life which we know will find their way into his written work. HAMMETT, which was directed by the German Wim Wenders, who also bragged that he had never heard of Hammett and never read a word he’d written, was like that. I believe SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was rather like that but I only saw the parody, GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE, but I get it. It’s standard operating procedure for writer’s biographies, but ANONYMOUS has the added virtue being about a writer and a non-writer. Its a wonderful journey through the past, even if it all is pretty much all made up. Imaginative making up stuff is apparently Emmerich’s stock-in-trade and he is something of a sci fi otoku. There is a certain comic book, or at least video game look to much of the work, with the currently popular mottled surfaces aesthetic, lots of complicated detail, sort of Ivan Albright writ large.
All that being said, nothing I saw made me one bit more convinced of De Vere’s authorship. To a certain extent the boldest supporter of De Vere is his direct descendent, Charles Beauclerk, the son of the 14th Earl of St. Albins, descended from the first Duke who was the bastard of Charles ll and Nell Gwyn, the daughter of the 20th (and last) Earl of Oxford. It is Beauclerk’s contention that… well that would be a gross spoiler but lets just say that if his supposition is true that would make him both a Stuart AND a Tudor.
As for my own opinion, I am almost always on the side of the common man who never gets credit for works of genius. I grow livid, for example, at those who try to ascribe the creation of the Mayan temples and cities to beings from outer space. When they were first discovered by Europeans, it was thought that naturally these people didn’t have the wit or skill to build these, so it must have been the Romans or the Egyptians who built them. Surely the ancestors of the Indians living in the Meso-American forest couldn’t have created them. And that is at the heart of all the non-Shakespeare theories. A man of that background couldn’t have written these monuments to the English Language. There is no proof anybody else did, but it couldn’t have been him.
Still the film is fun, especially for people who actually like Shakespeare and not those who hated him in school and had to read him. ANONYMOUS will stir the juices and send you back to the texts or tapes of Shakespeare’s plays afresh, looking at them as living documents and not as musty obligations.
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