By Eric Plaag
In the interest of full disclosure, I am obligated to say right from the start that I am a committed and unrepentant Oxfordian, and I have been for many years. My Stratfordian friends think I’m insane, of course, but my rejoinder to them would be that I find it so strange that their exhortations are the ones that reek of fundamentalist Kool-Aid, while mine are the ones that ring of openness to possibility and alternative explanations. Why do they resist thinking outside the box to answer the obvious questions that any scholar worth his or her salt should be asking about the man allegedly behind such beauty? But to them, I am little better than a raving conspiracy theorist. To me, they are righteously indignant prigs, councilors at Trent who would rather see me dead or anathema than admit that the heretic might be on to something about this fascinating topic.
If, at this point in this review, you have no idea what “this topic” is, then Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous might seem like just the thing to bring you up to speed. But in the interest of full disclosure again, let me also make it clear -— without any reservation whatsoever -— that this film is most decidedly not the place to start if you want to immerse yourself in the long-running dispute over the authorship of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. Somehow, in trying to tackle the topic, Emmerich and his cronies have produced something only slightly less scandalous and absurd than an E! True Hollywood Story episode, with even less truthiness to guide us through all the intrigue.
Much like one of those celebrity tell-all dramas, the set-up of Anonymous is not without its excitement. Courtesy of renowned Oxfordian and Shakespearian thespian extraordinaire, Derek Jacobi, we are introduced to the basic premise behind the controversial alternative attribution of Shakespeare’s works to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), rather than the poorly educated stable hand from Stratford-on-Avon with whom the plays are typically associated. Jacobi’s narrator glosses over the basic facts of the debate as a tease: De Vere was a widely traveled noble with the right kinds of access to queen and court that would have allowed him to write so persuasively and accurately about the topics found in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, while Shakespeare had no such access, did not travel abroad, and did not leave behind any literary writings of any kind in his own hand. Then Emmerich launches us into the dramatization of not only why de Vere had to hide his work from the public, but also his imagined story of how “a kingdom was lost” through the events that transpired as a result of de Vere’s deception. At the core of this drama is an unrequited but not unconsummated, lifelong love affair between a significantly older Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and de Vere. The famed playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), meanwhile, is relegated to the role of silent observer and secret keeper, a man who passed on de Vere’s offer to make him famous because he was proud enough to desire to make his own fame.
As enticing as this all might sound, from that point forward, Anonymous is an unmitigated mess of contradictions, profound historical inaccuracies, and overdramatized schlock. Among the more purple of these problems is Emmerich’s insistence that de Vere was an unprecedented literary marvel in sixteenth-century England because he was composing some of his scripts in iambic pentameter and blank verse, even though this practice was actually surprisingly widespread during the period. It does not suffice, meanwhile, for the real William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) to be merely a poorly educated and often cash-hungry actor trying to make a name for himself on London’s stage, as the Oxfordian theory usually assumes; here he’s a drunken, illiterate, scheming buffoon who nevertheless manages to slip past the guards and blackmail de Vere into funding his theater-building operations. Most infuriating to me, though, was the suggestion that Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) was still around to sully Shakespeare’s growing reputation in 1598, even though in the real historical world he’d been dead for five years at that point, killed in a different city and certainly not by Shakespeare’s hand. Instead, Emmerich would rather have us believe that the historical Shakespeare was a murderer, too.
The rest of the list of conflations, inaccuracies, and shameless inventions is too long and, frankly, way too annoying to recount here, but a brief summation of their general character might help. Emmerich presents many of the most famous plays as having been produced on stage in one remarkably prodigious run within weeks of one another and out of their historical sequence, not in an effort to make things concise but instead to distort the historical record and make it fit Emmerich’s (and not the traditional Oxfordian) version of the Oxfordian origin story. Along the way, we learn that Richard III wasn’t really a hunchback, but de Vere/”Shakespeare” made him one for the stage in order to humiliate a political rival, even though — away from Emmerich’s BizarroLondon — most English folk knew Richard III to have been a hunchback. And don’t even get me started on one glimpse we get of a wildly popular Shakespeare crowd-surfing after his latest fraudulent success. The most egregious of these plot twists might be Emmerich’s suggestion that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first produced at court by a twelve-year-old de Vere as a love poem of sorts to Elizabeth, decades ahead of its time, perhaps as a means of suggesting that de Vere was not just a literary genius but a frustrated, suppressed child prodigy as well. Following this logic, viewers can only conclude that the pre-teen de Vere must have been really pissed at losing the hand of a nearly thirty-year-old Elizabeth, prompting him to indulge in writing the orgy of torture better known as Titus Andronicus, presumably just after his fourteenth birthday.
For all of its many, many faults, Anonymous is not without its charms, spare as they may be. In the staging of Henry V, for example, Henry delivers his St. Crispin’s Day speech not to his soldiers but to London’s rabble, the poorest of the poor, gathered in the pit of the theater, thereby creating a swoon of appreciation for Henry and the England of old that is exactly fitting to the majesty of Shakespeare’s writing. Likewise, some of Emmerich’s efforts to draw the oft-cited parallels between the events of Shakespeare’s plays and de Vere’s life come off fairly well, even if slightly inaccurately, most notably in the stabbing of a servant behind a tapestry in the Cecil household and the unmistakable similarities between his father-in-law William Cecil (David Thewlis) and Hamlet’s Polonius. Indeed, these conflicts with William and son Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg) make for some of the most compelling drama in Anonymous, but the payoff is a twist on the excesses of Tudor incest that is so preposterous that it makes 2012 — Emmerich’s conspiracy-theory disaster flick about the infamous Mayan calendar that purportedly forecasts the end of the world — look like firmly-grounded scientific material.
Maybe it’s because I believe that I find Emmerich’s dramatic presentation of the Oxfordian hypothesis so maddening. Perhaps I am like a humbled, disillusioned Mulder, so enraged by the distortion of The Truth by those who seek personal gain through its manipulation that I now find myself embarrassed to remain loyal to The Truth. Perhaps, in the end, I am too close to this subject to be seeing movies about it that privilege “mood” and “inner truth,” as Emmerich describes his work here, over the actual facts available to those of us who still believe in such things. I know that biopics take many licenses, whether it be Oliver Stone’s reticent Nixon overhearing LBJ confess to being behind JFK’s death or Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus going mad at the hands of his purported nemesis Salieri. But in each of those cases, what viewers saw was an imagining of what might have happened to explain the gaps we cannot fill with evidence. Never did they cross the line to overtly distorting the known evidence — shamelessly and recklessly so — to suit an irresponsible and salacious variation on a theory that deserves greater attention but can only be discredited by association with this kind of dreck. It makes me ashamed to know that Emmerich is presumably on the same side of this debate as I am.
As for you, Roland Emmerich, you should be ashamed of yourself, too, and if the present arc of your career continues, I can’t imagine it will be long before you’re a regular on Coast-to-Coast AM.
Theaters, 1 out of 5 stars