“Anonymous” is Not Good, But That’s the Least of Its Problems
The New Yorker Festival, Director’s Guild of America, September 30, 2011
I’ll admit, I love a good train wreck, but they’re absolutely no fun when people you love are trapped in them. So is the case with the disaster that is Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous.
True, Emmerich is best known for disaster movies like Independence Day, Godzilla, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow, and true, those movies were disasters for more than one or even two reasons, but I really thought he would have less to blow up in a movie set in the seventeenth century. Turns out, without New York City to focus his wrath upon, he just chose to blow up history.
As most everyone knows, Anonymous takes one of the more serious Shakespeare authorship theories and posits that Edward deVere, the Earl of Oxford, was the true writer of the plays we now attribute to William Shakespeare. The Oxfordians, as those theorists are called, claim that the autobiographical details of deVere’s life more closely line up with the plays than Shakespeare’s life. They also claim that no one with Shakespeare’s education could have written such enduring works of literature, only a nobleman could have dreamt of such poetry. If I excuse the grotesque classism in that idea and ignore what we know of 16th century grammar schools (which is that they provided excellent classical educations), I can at least accept that the historical elements of deVere’s life make for a compelling case.
What Emmerich does with the debate, however, is to trash the historial record of deVere, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Philip Henslowe, not to mention Elizabeth I, and William and Robert Cecil, the Lords Burghley, and most of London. He is clearly invested in making the point that deVere was touched with genius and Shakespeare was an opportunistic lout who cheated his way into fame, and there was no fact so big that he couldn’t climb right over it to make that happen.
The story follows, non-linearly, the progress of Edward (as he’s called) through and out of Elizabeth’s court. Young Edward displays a notable precocity by writing and staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the pretty young queen, played sexily by Joely Richardson. As Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) grows up, he proves to be a bit of a hothead, which lands him in trouble, in a marriage he doesn’t want to William Cecil’s daughter, and quickly thereafter into the queen’s bed. From there, some simply ridiculous things happen (including the “revelation” that Elizabeth was mother to a slew of illegitimate children who all wound up in the homes of random childless nobles), and eventually Edward winds up out of favor.
Fast-forward a whole lot of years, and the delicious Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel), takes Edward (now played ably by Rhys Ifans) to the Rose Theatre to see a play by young upstart Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armest0). The play is Every Man in His Humour, and Jonson is arrested in the middle of the performance for sedition, which is more or less true. Jonson is then bailed out by Edward who presses him to stage his play, Henry V, and put his name on it. Jonson complies with staging it, but worried about his reputation, avoids putting any name on it until he’s seen it, at which point the grubby little actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) makes the claim instead.
More stuff happens, including the rise of Shakespeare as a noted playwright, the rise of the Globe (with the help of some nasty fundraising on Shakespeare’s part), and the destruction of the Earl of Essex by William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his toady of a son, Robert (Edward Hogg). The framework for these plot points is true, but the substance is shoddy and full of holes. The overlapping of the storylines is supposedly kept clear by having different actors play the parts at different ages, mostly (most effectively in the case of Richardson and her mother Vanessa Redgrave, who shared Elizabeth), but Edward, Southampton, and Essex are all blond and attractive, and you really need to have an eye for blond men if you want to keep them straight.
But these are minor irritations. The story is ridiculous, the authorship claims laughable (not because of the serious debate, but because the fictional claims are so extremely fictional), and the history offensively mishandled, but the worst of it is the tone.
More than once, the audience at the plays is called a mob. Though the term has its usefulness and its historical weight, for the film to lean so heavily on why an audience was little more than a dumb hoard is to mock playgoers in a terrible way. Edward himself suggests that his genius might actually be madness or possession, and Jonson and Marlowe are more often seen drunk and bitter than they are creative and engaged with the work of the theater. Words are treated like a sickness, plays pathetic wastes, and playwrights failed humans with little to recommend them to queen or country. The language of the screenplay further reflects that contempt being neither lyrical nor witty, never smart, often laughable. This is a much-handled script, and the result is a mess that mocks its very substance.
Emmerich manages to get quite a few literal bangs out of this movie, but the figurative ones–the knocks to the record of time, the dignity of playwrighting and playgoing, and the heart of the early modern dramatic period–are appalling. It’s not a good movie, but none of Emmerich’s movies really are. We watch them because they offer a bit of fun and excitement. I wouldn’t put money down for either with Anonymous.