THIS TIME on Torments, Dan looks at an insulting fabrication of history.
Full disclosure: I studied English Literature at university – I know, the shame – which involved a considerable deal of William Shakespeare. It’s pointless to elaborate on why Shakespeare is so important, both in literary and social terms, but the various mysteries surrounding his life and work have grown to mythic proportions in the four-or-so centuries since his passing. We simply don’t know a great deal about the man beyond the plays, and much of the understanding we do have is, somewhat fallaciously, drawn directly from his work.
One of the most prominent theories is the authorship question; namely, whether Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. This is a real thing believed by otherwise intelligent people. It’s the literary equivalent of 9/11 Truthers foaming at the mouth (“blank verse can’t melt steel beams!”), demanding another explanation where one is readily apparent. ‘Anti-Stratfordians’, as they have come to be known, refute the son of a tradesman from Stratford having the wit and capacity to write the most celebrated canon of work in the English language, largely because he had no noble background. (We’ll set aside the inherent snobbery in the assertion.)
One of the most popular candidates for alternative authorship (posited by, seriously, J. Thomas Looney) is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who died alone and penniless in 1604 having squandered his vast estate. (The Tempest, for instance, was written in 1610.) This is the point where I remember that I’m writing a film review and not another academic broadside debunking the thoroughly debunked, as Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous asks, in boldest print on broadest canvas: “Was Shakespeare a fraud?”
Putting aside the answer – “no” – Emmerich’s take on the authorship question is pure Emmerich: Brash, loud and over-confident, it grapples with boorish stereotypes and worthless platitudes while simultaneously revising history with the grace of a Dogberry punchline. It occasionally looks very pretty, and the production design is top notch, but it’s all in service of a clanging script that depends on a fractured chronology and multiple viewpoints to distort its audience’s understanding of a ludicrous plot incapable of standing up to scrutiny.
The film opens with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi, a proud anti-Stratfordian for what it’s worth) addressing a modern theatre with the film’s thesis, and we hurtle into Elizabethan England with Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) fleeing from soldiers, who are after the playwright for hiding Shakespeare’s works. From there, the film leaps back and forth through time, making absolutely sure to establish that de Vere (Rhys Ifans) is the tormented genius behind the plays, and the fraudster William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is a smelly dunce man with a big old ruff.
Much of the film’s action is confined to montage snapshots of the plays, shot through with court scenes with the frail Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and pub scenes with Jonson’s motley crew of lesser-known playwrights. There are more ruptured chronological (and logical) leaps in this film than Tarantino’s entire filmography, all of which redundantly reiterate the same basic point: Roland Emmerich has no concept of Elizabethan history, scholarly or otherwise.
Emmerich is at his best when he throws caution to the wind and gives the audience what they want; namely, popcorn-munching action schlock that demands only a fraction of your attention span to register what’s happening on-screen. He’s a would-be populist appealing to the masses, but whereas the White House exploding in Independence Day is the eye-candy to distract from the daftness of the script, he has no such fallback in Anonymous. Instead, he commands his actors, all accomplished performers, to deliver their lines with the utmost dripping ham for the schlubs in the back.
The actors must have responded with glee. Edward Hogg’s Robert Cecil is a lugubrious, Puritanical wretch in the Wormtongue mould; Spall’s Shakespeare is a spluttering oaf, and Jacobi’s Chorus is suitably grandiose. The performances are pitched to snugly fit a single trait that’s been exaggerated to the highest degree, because maximalism is the only philosophy that Emmerich seems to understand. Ifans actually fares the best in this regard, imbuing de Vere with the anguish befitting a soul of the age. He’s both foul-tempered and effusive, his thwarted ambition clenched in the intensity of his gaze. His restraint is admirable enough that when he does, inevitably, scream and spit the lines it has a palpable effect.
In all honesty, there’s not a whole lot wrong with the film itself. Beyond the spit-taking stupidity of the script – take Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) and Thomas Nashe (Tony Way) dismissing the mere notion of a play written in iambic pentameter (!!!) as impossible hokum – the production design is gorgeous, swelling with period authenticity. The streets of Tudor London are suitably filthy and the court aptly lavish, highlighting the dichotomy between the lowly poor, as embodied by the loutish Shakespeare, and the oh-so superior sensibilities of the upper class as embodied by the pristine de Vere. (I’m suppressing an Althusserian diatribe.)
The acting, while hammy, remains entertaining and the cinematography is varied and interesting, knowing when to pull back and when to immerse itself in the swell of the crowd. On a technical level, it’s a perfectly decent slice of prestige film-making. But then we have to ask: Who is the target audience? The film ties itself in so many knots contextualising proceedings that it becomes difficult to follow.
For the average viewer, with no prior knowledge of the authorship question or its historical framework, it’s not difficult to imagine them losing interest. For those who are familiar with both the theories and the history, it’s an insulting revision of established events and figures. That’s the paradox – the people who know what’s going on will surely hate what they’re watching, and the people who don’t will struggle to care.
What’s ironic about all this is that historical veracity never bothered Shakespeare. Just look at the revisionism present in Richard III, one of his most popular plays – he knew, just as well as Emmerich, that facts can be disregarded for the sake of entertainment. Clocks didn’t exist in 44BC, but there they are in Julius Caesar. It didn’t matter that Bohemia never had a coast-line and yet there it is in The Winters Tale.
The historicity of media is ultimately irrelevant so long as its exclusion serves to emphasise the narrative, the characters – the artistic core of the piece. The fact that Edward de Vere didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays would normally be irrelevant, but it is the central thesis of Emmerich’s film. It is impossible to extricate the theory and the film, so Anonymous suffers by association.
It’s so fixated on spotlighting de Vere that the rest of the film falls into over-egged caricature, hastily trodden over to fawn over the Earl of Oxford’s dreamy omniscience. Emmerich is dealing with Shakespearean themes – betrayal, disguise, succession, revenge – but the attempt is drowned in platitudes and false equivalence. What’s left is an academic exercise masquerading as populist entertainment that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
At least it’s not in iambic pentameter. I mean, that would be impossible.