“Anonymous,” a costume spectacle directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination. Apart from that, it’s not bad.
I’m hardly a Shakespearean scholar. I know the plays, I’ve been involved in the production of several, and I’ve got a decent amateur-historian sense of the man’s life, his peers and the events of the time. Let me put it this way: I got the John Webster jokes in “Shakespeare in Love”. But I wouldn’t claim deep scholarship or expertise.
Needless to say, I find the anti-Stratfordian/pro-Oxfordian theories of “Anonymous” pretty damn ridiculous. My cursory research over the weekend into the Oxfordian theories tells me it holds very little water. On top of that, the movie decides not only to promote that theory, but also a sub-theory of that theory (that the Earl of Southhampton was Oxford and Queen Elizabeth’s secret bastard child) AND a fringe sub-theory of THAT theory. (I won’t even dignify it with printing.)
What kind of astounds me is the core of anti-Stratfordian theory comes from the idea that a writer of Shakespeare’s level HAD to come from the aristocracy– undereducated commoner stock couldn’t have possibly produced such genius. But the movie then goes out of its way to declare the Earl of Oxford as a unique, blessed-by-God genius. If that was the case, then why does the stock of birth matter?
But, other than that, it’s a decently crafted film. Disaster-Epic Master Director Roland Emmerich strays from his comfort zone here, and does a fine job. Though I would say one of his strengths as a director is assembling a strong ensemble that elevates the material, and that’s exactly what he does here. The cast all does an excellent job. (Emmerich’s other strength, of course, is destroying recognizable landmarks. He can’t resist that; he does, indeed, burn down the Globe Theatre early in the film.)
A strong point in the film is the production of the Shakespearean plays within the movie. They are well done, though I have heard that noted Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance had a hand in crafting those, he himself playing one of the actors in troupe, playing the Chorus in the production of Henry V, and Richard in Richard III.
Actually, that does remind me of two sticking points. One’s a nitpick. To rouse the crowd for the failed Essex Rebellion, Oxford arranges a performance of Richard III, with hunchbacked Richard to make the commoners think of hunchbacked Robert Cecil and thus revolt. In history, the Essex conspirators planned to arrange a performance of Richard II, with its theme of crooked advisers doing more subtle work. Richard III, besides being the more famous play, was a more crass choice of blad manipulation.
The other is more crass, bald manipulation. The first public production of an Oxford play (arranged by Ben Jonson with no authorial attribution- Drunken, showboating Shakespeare later claims credit, which Oxford goes along as fitting his needs) is Henry V. As soon as it starts (“O for a muse of fire…”) the audience is enraptured. Over in the gallery of jaded playwrights (Jonson, Kit Marlowe and a couple others), they are all INSTANTLY agog, with dumbfounded looks at each other as they keep their attention on the stage, all of them amazed at the brilliant prose. They cannot believe how mind-blowingly good this speech is, and wonder (save Jonson, who occasionally glances awestruck at Oxford up in the noble seats) who was the hidden genius behind this astounding work.
Now, the Chorus prologue of Henry V is a great speech. But it needs a bit more than six words to work its magic. In not letting the speech itself work its magic, in telegraphing the oversold reaction, the scene lost the speech for me.
That said, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech part? That they oversold a bit as well, but in a way that worked for me.
All in all, an interesting movie to see, if you don’t mind the utterly insulting concept at the core.