Why ‘Anonymous’ Is the Worst Movie I’ve Seen in 2011 (So Far)

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.

Um... Mr. Shakespeare, the audience is behind you.

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.

Of couese De Vere wrote the plays. After all, everyone knows only noblemen think flowers are pretty.

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.

Look at me! I'm a queen!

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.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Why ‘Anonymous’ Is the Worst Movie I’ve Seen in 2011 (So Far)

  1. I was already opposed to this film because of its ludicrous conspiracy theory – quite a few people knew Shakespeare and mentioned him in writings at the time, so were they all in on it?! However, I had wondered if it might be a good film despite the premise – as you say, JFK shows that this is possible. Sounds from your review as if ‘Anonymous’ is dire in general, however, so I will save my time and money! Good to see you posting again, Jason, and enjoyed your review a lot … but must say I absolutely hated ‘Crazy Stupid Love’.

    • Thank you Judy! It’s nice to be posting again. Yes, you are probably wise to save your money. Save this for a rental or cable viewing, if you even care by then.

      And I saw that you hated ‘Crazy Stupid Love’ in one of your comments. I just found it utterly, cloyingly, disgustingly charming. I don’t know why, but I liked it. Maybe Ryan Gosling inspires something in me…

  2. This article typically rehashes all the tired shop worn falsehoods about the authorship issue and does so with epithets, name calling, snide put-downs and inflammatory rhetoric that substitutes for a reasoned investigation of the issues. It seems that the writer of the article would have people ignore such silly things as evidence. I never thought I would see the day when we are told that even evidence should be ignored.

    We should not think for ourselves and just ignore evidence. We ought to just bow before the academic establishment and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in their well financed and orchestrated campaign to stifle dissent on this issue.

    We so need to have our Shakespeare be the romantic uneducated genius from Stratford and do not care to look at evidence that might shake us out of our comfort zone. I know how hard it is for people to identify with a minority point of view since there is a strong desire for conformity in a period of great change.

    People don’t want to have their icons messed with. Yet, perhaps the film might have people look beyond what they’ve been told and seek the truth for themselves and, contrary to the above rant, the clear evidence that points to Edward de Vere. If the film accomplishes even one quarter of that, it will be a remarkable achievement.

    Incidentally, in case you hadn’t noticed, 80% of the American people do not buy the official lies of the Warren Commission.

    • Despite your dismissal of my piece for not having any evidence, you do a remarkably good job of omitting any yourself. You claim there is “clear evidence that points to Edward De Vere,” but don’t provide any, nor do you direct me to any of it.

      I’m not sure where you got the idea that I want people to ignore evidence. What I want people to do is think critically about it, instead of accepting it like sheep (which is, ironically, what you are trying to get me to do). You accuse me of bowing to the academic establishment. Well, I don’t know about you, but I tend to trust the research and work of people who have devoted their lives to studying a subject. If something they assert doesn’t make sense, I question it. But nothing Shakespeare scholars have asserted strikes me as unreasonable, while the Shakespeare-as-fraud theorists come up with one piece of silliness after another. The “academic establishment” has piles of written evidence, while the theorists have conjecture. Could the theorists be right? Of course they might be. But I’ve never seen anything to even make me suspect they are. I’ve always found it remarkably compelling that it took two hundred years for anyone to question his authorship. That would be like someone in another 150 years asserting that Maya Angelou couldn’t have written that beautiful poetry, because what could a poor Black, ex-prostitute have known about anything. She must have been a front for … well, someone.

      I’m not sure why you think questioning Shakespeare’s authenticity would shake me from my comfort zone. It really doesn’t affect me one way or the other. What does irk me is sloppy conjecture being passed off as historical fact. I didn’t think people would be silly enough to believe Roland Emmerich of all people, but coming out of the theater I heard more than one person express disbelief that Shakespeare was a phoney. That just made me roll my eyes.

      I also find it amusing that on the one hand you chide me and others who think for ourselves for toeing the majority line, afraid to identify with a minority point of view. Then in the very next paragraph you dismiss my assertions about the Kennedy assassination because 80% of Americans supposedly don’t believe the Warren Report. So you dismiss my criticism of the Shakespeare conspiracy theorists because I’m afraid of not conforming, but you insist I rethink the Kennedy assassination because I’m in the minority. Interesting.

  3. Alexandra Theet

    To be honest your reiteration that you believe Shakespeare scholarship doesn’t explain what you know, or don’t. Just one piece of evidence written during his lifetime that connect him to the plays would be tremendous, but we don’t have that. We have some litigation papers where he wanted his money back, a restraining order, property notices, grain purchases, the will. No one in Stratford ever mentioned him as an author. Neither did his daughters, or son-in-law, a physician who did write. He was an actor and play broker and a social climber, but writer? Even the famous ‘upstart crow’ quote — the whole quote — if about Shakespeare, accuses him of being a usurer (moneylender) and a thief who took other writer’s work to pawn off as his own.

    Beware of biographies of Shakespeare, such as Greenblatt’s “Will in the World,” that even James Shapiro (staunch Stratfordian) is wary of, as the whole book is written with supposition, fabrication, and assumption. The NY Times book reviewer didn’t know if he should file it under Fiction or Non-Fiction. Many, many books about Shakespeare are written this way and good and inventive writing does not make for true biography.

    “I’ve always found it remarkably compelling that it took two hundred years for anyone to question his authorship.” Just so you know – The first to question was the Rev. James Wilmont (b.1729) who was an Oxford-trained scholar, who combed Warwickshire looking for relevant papers regarding Shakespeare and came up empty handed. In 1785 he concluded that someone else had written the plays.

    This was a beautiful movie, with scintillating acting, and first rate design.
    I am not convinced that de Vere wrote the plays, and I do not believe other plot lines, but I need more proof to show that Shakespeare did.

    Hey, Orson Welles was an Oxfordian.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful rebuttal. I do appreciate it, even though I disagree with your conclusions. What I am most struck by is when you say you need more proof. Well why? No one questioned it for 200 years. That isn’t offered as a statement of proof, but it does provide some insight. If Shakespeare was indeed a phoney, one would think whispers of that fact would have crept into the record somewhere closer to his time than ours. I don’t discount the possibility that Shakespeare could have stolen some or all of his work from other writers, but I still haven’t seen anything to convince me of it. You say you need to see more proof that he did, I need to see some proof that he didn’t.

      I bet if we go back and look at any pre-Modern writer (or even some Modern ones) we could find holes in the historical record that an opportunistic academic could point to as evidence he was a fraud. There’s a lot we know about Chaucer because of his bureaucratic and diplomatic work, but there are still lots of things we don’t know about him. The absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence that Chaucer (or Shakespeare or Milton or Boccaccio) was a fraud. I need to see actual evidence that someone else wrote this stuff, not conjecture based on understandable gaps in an incomplete record. Otherwise I need to question the authorship of everything out there until someone proves they wrote it.

      And as far as the movie goes, I disagree that it was “beautiful.” I found it gloomy and depressing, mostly because such great talents were being wasted here. The direction woefully unfocused, jerking us around in time without any regard for a narrative flow. It’s really a shame because I was poised to enjoy it, even if I do think it to be historical fantasy.

  4. Whoa Jason!! Your superlative review has generated quite the defensive comment section! You handled yourself magnificently with both responses, and your return to blogging here was a triumphant one. Alas, I am sorry to say that I still have not seen this film, though several opportunities did surface. It’s still playing locally, so I will do all I can to see it before it disappears. I can’t say for sure, but as the Bard is my favorite artist in any field through my life I am skeptical by this interpretation, even while standing behind artistic license. Your takedown was not arbitrary and careless, on the contrary it was an authoritative and persuasive one.

    Welcome back.

    • Thank you Sam. I’ve been missing regular blogging. As for this movie, for some reason this is an issue that can get people riled up, so I’m not surprised at the reaction. I don’t think you will be missing much if you never get around to it. In fact, I recommend avoiding it completely, unless you can see it for free and you have nothing better to do…. like after the zombie apocalypse.

  5. Alexandra Theet

    Just to clear up a fact Jason, there were those soon after Shakespeare’s lifetime that tried to find out facts about him. In the mid seventeenth-century John Aubrey and two others went to Stratford to find clues but were given only anecdotes: that he poached deer, apprenticed to a butcher, etc. They concluded that trying to find out anything about him was a lost cause. During Puritan rule all theater was outlawed and in Restoration theater the plays were re-written to appeal to a new audience. It wasn’t until David Garrick staged them in the mid eighteenth-century that Shakespeare became popular again and his authorship a topic. But now, I will exit stage right.

  6. Pingback: Satyagraha, The Descendants, Tomboy, The Crowd, Colonel Blimp and Robert Gardner on Monday Morning Diary (November 21) « Wonders in the Dark

  7. Hmmm, could this trump Larry Crowne and Melancholia for top-spot in my worst of 2011. I’m now going to have to endure it and find out. The name Roland Emmerich always strikes a thin slither of fear into my timid little heart. Ah, look out, here comes The 13th Floor. Aaaaarrrrrgggghhhh!!!

    • Well I think if you managed to make it through Von Trier, Emmerich will seem like a cakewalk. But a lot of people somehow actually like this movie, which is mind boggling to me. Personally, I’d rather watch Larry Crowne again. But if you get out to see it, let me know what you think.

  8. This Howard Schumann fella above needs to relax. Cut back and have some margaritas or something.

    Sharp article, man.

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