Over the past few months I’ve had to trade my weekly trips to the multiplex for less frequent visits. I’ve also neglected writing about what I’ve seen. Like the fact that I really enjoyed Drive and Moneyball and surprisingly liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Crazy Stupid Love. I also didn’t much care for Cowboys and Aliens and, despite all the muscley perks of Jason Momoa, hated Conan the Barbarian. None of these movies inspired enough love or hatred to get my fingers typing on the keyboard the way Anonymous did, a truly wretched piece of garbage masquerading as thoughtful art.
Anonymous is the worst kind of historical fiction. Not because it fudges the facts for the story – after all, what historical drama doesn’t do that do some degree? – but because it asserts fiction as fact and fudges the facts to popularize a theory that would be insidious if it weren’t so goofy. Promotional posters for the film ask in bold letters: “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” I originally thought that was a great subject for a movie. But the movie doesn’t ask that question. It assumes that Shakespeare was a front for the Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere and instead asks how he became a fraud.
Making a film that questions Shakespeare’s role in the authorship of his plays would be fine, but to insist that they have hit on a long hushed up historical secret swept under the rug by snobby Shakespeare scholars ( as director Roland Emmerich and writer John Orloff have done in recent interviews) smacks of the ultimate presumption and hubris. I won’t claim to be an expert on William Shakespeare, but I’ve read and seen some persuasive things that pretty handily discount the Shakespeare-as-fraud theory, so I’m naturally skeptical of anyone asserting otherwise.
The irony, of course, is that these theories were started in the nineteenth century by literary snobs who just couldn’t wrap their sclerotic minds around the idea that a dirty, crude commoner could have written some of the most beautiful verse in the history of English literature. It is strikingly suspicious that it took some 200 years for whispers of fraudulence to spring up. One would think rumors would have sprouted much earlier, especially from people who were close to or jealous of the man. But, as far as I know, there are no contemporary sources that charge Shakespeare with being a fraud.
Of course it’s silly to get into specifics because, like the Kennedy assassination, it’s becoming a matter of faith for a small group of gullible conspiracy theorists that Shakespeare was a phony. (And let’s be clear: Not that he had help or worked in collaboration. No, that he was an absolute fake.) Just look at message boards and comment threads and you’ll see an almost religious adherence to fantastic conspiracy theories fueled by half-truths and outright falsehoods. If you challenge their facts or logic, you are dismissed as gullible and are chided for not being open-minded.
This cult of open-mindedness simply means you have to reject everything that is traditionally believed in favor of mind-bogglingly complex conspiracy theories. There’s evidence, you jackass! they shout (and you know it’s shouting because it’s all in caps). But of course there is. Some of it might be compelling, but most of it can be explained or doesn’t mean what they think it does. And the lack of evidence doesn’t mean much in a era characterized by thin records.
So of course there is evidence he didn’t write his plays. There is also evidence that Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, that men never walked on the Moon, that O.J. Simpson isn’t a double murderer, that Rosie Ruiz actually ran the Boston Marathon, that the McMartins were the most prolific Satan worshiping child molesters in U.S. history, that a prehistoric sea monster haunts Loch Ness, and the list could go on and on. We can find evidence for any crackpot theory. The trick is learning to sift through the claims to determine what is valid and what makes sense. Emmerich and Orloff aren’t all that interested in doing that; they’re just trying to make a sensational movie that plays on the public’s gullibility. People are ignorant enough about history. These guys just made sure they stay that way.
Of course none of this addresses whether Anonymous is a good movie or not. After all, a film can assert wacky theories and still be good. Look at JFK. But even on a purely cinematic, popcorn-entertainment level, Anonymous is just no good. I wasn’t particularly fond of anyone, nor did I give a damn about anything they were doing. And Emmerich never articulates why we should care either. He has no problem drawing Shakespeare as a villain (though an opportunistic dunderhead), but has more trouble with the rest of his characters.
Supposedly Edward De Vere is our hero, but we’re never sure why he’s doing what he’s doing. Yes, he wants to prevent King James of Scotland succeeding the aged Queen Elizabeth, but we lose all sympathy when we find out it has nothing to do with who he thinks would rule England better. He just wants his son to be king. It’s not even because James is a mincing dandy with a pronounced lisp (as he’s portrayed by Emmerich). No, he just can’t stand the idea that his son is only a rich nobleman; he should be king! (Oh, and thanks for beating us over the head with James’ homosexuality, Emmerich. We all know he was gay, but you weren’t content implying it. No, you had to club us with that message with some of those offensive gay stereotypes that might have been funny in Airplane! but not here.)
Then there’s Ben Johnson (played by Sebastian Armesto, one of the few bright spots of the picture). Emmerich has to contort historical facts to an unseemly degree to connect the writer Johnson to De Vere, as his original choice to be the front for his plays. Shakespeare figures it out (I guess he wasn’t as dumb as the movie wants us to think) and muscles his way into the deal. But we’re never meant to invest in Johnson in any substantial way. He shows up, wrings his hands or flies into a rage (whichever the circumstances dictate) and slinks off so we can be treated to more artless flashbacks and clumsy love scenes. He’s being used by Emmerich like all his other characters. We know he doesn’t have any affection for any of them. He just wants his picture to make some money.
It’s also a shame to see Vanessa Redgrave’s talents wasted here. The Elizabeth Orloff wrote for her is a vain, silly woman without an ounce of wit, intelligence, or cunning. She simply allows herself to be manipulated by the most obvious manipulators, father and son advisors, William and Robert Cecil. We get no glimpses of the woman who survived Mary, Queen of Scots, King Philip’s Spanish Armada, and countless other domestic and international scrapes. But we do learn she liked pretty plays and young boys. Thanks.
I rather liked Edward Hogg’s performance as the younger Cecil. He works his character well, never letting us forget his immense personal and professional insecurity. I wonder if it should be counted as a failing if the only character I felt any compassion for is the putative villain of the film.
Clearly this is one of the worst films I’ve seen this year. Nothing, other than Season of the Witch, inspired as much anger in me than this. The fact that the big reveal, the big twist at the end is nothing more than tawdry and exploitative incest, doesn’t win any points. And not the hot kind of incest – you know, where twins get it on – but the stomach-churning Oedipus-Jocasta kind. This was inserted only to provoke a reaction, to get that extra wow. It has nothing to do with the characters or enhance their stories. And to make matters worse, it only blackens the historical names of real people. Emmerich ought to be ashamed of himself.