Anonymous: A Film for our Time? (but not in a good way)

December 16, 2011

Roland Emmerich (Director) and John Orloff (Writer), Anonymous, Centropolis Entertainment/Studio Babelsburg, 2011

Reviewed by Gayle Allan

From the man who brought you Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and Godzilla comes Anonymous (Emmerich, 2011), a film whose central premise shares much with its predecessors’ speculative nature (and sheer far-fetchedness), but which presents itself as a serious, historical response to the question that the film’s poster screams at us, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?”

And there, as Shakespeare says, is the rub. It is not the ludicrous and laughable inaccuracies of the plot (which appear with relentless regularity and with such insouciance) which make this a bad film, in fact in its own right it is quite watchable.(1) Nor is the dramatic licence taken in creating a fictional interpretation of a well-known story problematic – the practice of dramatically asking the question “what if” is a perfectly valid, and often successful, technique used by artists of all genres. No, the problem with Anonymous does not in fact lie in the film itself, but in its after-life, in the interviews and claims made by director Roland Emmerich and screen writer John Orloff who have been spruiking their film as a bold and courageous telling of the real history of Elizabeth I, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford) and Shakespeare, that should, and must, be told. In his article on Anonymous (see footnote 1), Holger Syme quotes an interview Emmerich gave to Deutsche Welle where he claims that “only somebody like me, who’s … a bit of an outsider in Hollywood, … but also a person who’s very courageous, could have done this. I could not see an English director doing it, because they would be afraid.” In an interview with Amy Curtis, Emmerich dismisses his academic critics with this crafty argument: “…they are actually more biased than anyone else because they have the most to loose [sic]. And the Shakespeare Birth Trust, like it says, they have a 2-3 million people-a-year industry. If those numbers would go down they would freak out.”(2)  In a classic example of “playing the man and not the ball”, Emmerich prefers to attack and discredit his critics rather than defend the spurious (and indefensible) claims made in his film.

But, to the film itself. The central conceit of the film reads like a Victorian “penny-dreadful” with a series of scandalous revelations, including a series of illegitimate children of the aristocracy (Elizabeth I was particularly active in this regard). The film would have us believe that Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans) wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare and, what’s more, had been writing them since he was eight years old and had already performed many of the plays for Elizabeth  I (Joely Richardson/Vanessa Redgrave ) in court (at one point in the play Elizabeth meets the child de Vere and thanks him for both his acting and performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). A teenage de Vere enters the household of the Queen’s secretary William Cecil (David Thewlis), a puritan, and he is forbidden from the filthy and seditious habit of writing. When de Vere “accidentally” kills one of Cecil’s servants who was spying on him from behind a curtain (read “arras”), Cecil blackmails de Vere into marrying his daughter Anne (Helen Baxendale) and forbids him from writing in exchange for protection from prosecution for the killing. Thus, poor de Vere must find another way of getting his plays out to the public (because he simply “can’t stop writing” – one cannot stop genius). He employs (threatens) the playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) to circulate his plays – Jonson divulges this secret to his actor friend Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a vain, illiterate country bumpkin (Will Ferrell-like character) with a greedy, opportunistic (and possibly murderous) streak. Jonson has not read the play and is fearful of damaging his reputation so, knowing of Jonson’s equivocation, Shakespeare bursts forth at the end of the triumphant performance and claims it as his own. And thus the ruse begins. As de Vere has been writing these plays from an early age (remember, about 8 years old) he has a great store of work to draw upon. Plays keep appearing and along the way we learn of Elizabeth’s army of illegitimate children, one of which de Vere fathers (the Earl of Southampton played by Xavier Samuel), as well as Jonson’s moral disintegration and drinking problems, Christopher Marlowe’s (Trystan Gravelle) nasty, spying ways and eventual murder (seemingly at the hands of Shakespeare), and finally the shocking truth that de Vere himself is one of Elizabeth’s bastards! Quelle Horreur.

And all this without a hint of irony.

The film does have its good points. It is visually splendid, the recreation of early modern England is lavish and, at times, spectacular. It tells an exciting story and, if we didn’t know better (and we  most certainly do), it could be plausible. If you knew nothing of the period, of Elizabeth I and Marlowe and Jonson and Shakespeare, or really didn’t care either way, then it is an entertaining couple of hours in the cinema. When viewed simply as a film, it works.

However, this is a film which poses as something else – a popular film, deliberately sensationalised for commercial profits, masquerading as factual, researched, accurate history – the real story that “Stratfordians” have been suppressing for centuries to shore up their jobs and reputations. If the director and screenwriter had stuck with the meta-theatrical framing at the beginning and end of their film, where the “story” is told from behind the proscenium arch and therefore admits its artiface, then perhaps Anonymous would be forgivable. At different times both Emmerich and Orloff are at pains to point out that this is exactly what they are doing: “But I (Emmerich) kind of just think that art has to be provoked and you have to ask questions. I do nothing different than what Shakespeare did; mess things up a little.”(3)  However most other times they are adamant that theirs is a serious contribution to the authorship debate.

Emmerich and Orloff need to either admit Anonymous is an artful piece of story-telling and nothing has to be defended, or maintain the “well-researched historical fact that is being suppressed by self-interested academics and Shakespeare ‘industry’” argument and withstand (and expect) whatever is thrown at them. The more they persist with their claims of authenticity and scholarship, the more attention and scathing attacks they will attract from the academic community. Put simply, they can’t have it both ways. As Syme points out, “Emmerich and Orloff … go out of their way to lecture people, so they’re asking for the pedant’s probe.” And there are plenty of pedants out there ready to start probing!

While all this is grist for the publicity mill (and helps them promote their conspiracy theory further) there is a far more alarming aspect to the Anonymous phenomena. While the posturing of Emmerich and Orloff is contradictory, ridiculous and self-serving, one of the film’s marketing campaigns, disguised as education material, is another matter entirely. Sony Pictures, one of the distributors of Anonymous, are pseudo-legitimising the film by producing and distributing teaching materials for the film to high schools and colleges.(4) That’s like using Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) as the basis for a cloning experiment, or Hogan’s Heroes (Fein & Ruddy, 1965-71) as an historical primer for World War Two! All jokes aside, this “education” material is ill-informed, biased and reckless with facts. The sources they list are largely discredited or of very little academic merit. And naturally all roads (teaching and learning activities) lead back to Anonymous. But even more blatantly, at the bottom of each page, in large, bold type, the teachers and students are encouraged to, “Uncover the true genius of William Shakespeare. See Anonymous – in theaters 28 October 2011”. The material is glossy and attractive and is likely to be embraced by teachers desperate for pre-packaged material that will make studying Shakespeare “more interesting.”

One of the film’s chief critics, Shakespearean scholar and biographer James Shapiro (see Glen Jennings review of Shapiro’s “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” in  Steep Stairs, Vol.5 Oct 2011), argues that Anonymous is in fact a film of, and for, our time, “in which claims based on conviction are as valid as those based on hard evidence,” an argument that conveniently deals with any objections to lack of documentary evidence to de Vere’s claim.(5) Perhaps Shapiro is right. In a society that privileges opinion over informed debate, where decisions are predicated on twenty-four hour news cycles, where information comes in 160 characters or less, and “spin doctors” are the gate keepers of communication, then perhaps Anonymous’s grab bag of titillation and snake oil dressed up as history is all we can expect. Or deserve.

The inevitable consequence is that once again a generation of students will be distracted by the recurring authorship issue after being led to believe, by this ridiculous film: the “fact” of de Vere’s authorship, Elizabeth’s “confirmed” off-spring, and the murderous fraud from Stratford. While this is mildly irritating, what is more distressing is that the focus is shifted once again from the work to the man. Although questioning the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare is valid, as his claim is not irrefutable, this should be done in a measured, scholarly way. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. But more importantly, the authorship question should never distract us from the plays and poems that have been left for us – a gift from a sixteenth and seventeenth century writer(s?) just like us, but not like us. A genius whose “time was out of joint”, whose words leap across the centuries and confront us with an eerily accurate image of ourselves. But we should be comforted by the thought that Messrs Emmerich and Orloff will be forgotten soon enough, and this particular little spat will blow over, as these things always do, and the words will prevail,  as they always do.

NOTES

(1) Many Shakespearean scholars have discussed the factual problems in Anonymous and this article will not attempt to catalogue them. For a full, scholarly, yet witty and entertaining refutation of the myriad of historical clangers and inaccuracies in Anonymous, see Holger Syme’s article “People Being Stupid About Shakesp… or Someone Else”, http://www.dispositio.net/archives/449).

(2) Amy Curtis: Interview with Roland Emmerich, (http://wegotthiscovered.com/movies/interview-roland-emmerich-anonymous/)

(3) Curtis interview, (http://wegotthiscovered.com/movies/interview-roland-emmerich-anonymous/)

(4) This material is referred to as Sony’s “corporate product” by SARC (Shakespeare Authorship Resource Center – see http://shake-speares-bible.com/2011/11/01/sarc-to-sponsor-anonymous-colloquium/) and was developed for them by Young Minds Inspired, an internet education resource website. The site provides a document showing how their materials fulfill the National Education Standards (http://www.ymiclassroom.com/AnonymousStandards.pdf), as well a providing teaching plans for high school and college students (http://www.ymiclassroom.com/pdf/AnonymousCollege.pdf)

(5) James Shapiro, Hollywood Dishonors the Bard”, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/opinion/hollywood-dishonors-the-bard.html

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One Response to “Anonymous: A Film for our Time? (but not in a good way)”

  1. […] Anonymous: A Film for our Time? (but not in a good way) « Steep Stairs Review […]

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