As a filmmaker, Roland Emmerich is first and foremost a savvy opportunist who cannily exploits topics and controversies currently percolating in the culture to grab attention for his particular brand of spectacle-driven entertainment. The Day After Tomorrow, for example, was a climate change-induced environmental disaster movie, while 2012 played off of the superstition that the world will end next year as the Mayans supposedly predicted centuries ago. With his new film, Anonymous, Emmerich has inserted himself another ongoing debate: Was William Shakespeare the actual author of such timeless plays as Hamlet, King Lear and The Comedy of Errors?
In the run-up to the movie's release, the German-born director has nabbed a lot of attention by claiming to side with the Oxfordian school of thought, which essentially posits that a man with Shakespeare's background couldn't possibly have written the words that have been attributed to him. If Emmerich's intention with Anonymous was to sell the rest of us on this dubious theory, he's failed spectacularly. But if -- as I suspect -- he's more interested in ginning up controversy to sell more tickets, than bravo. Because, much like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 before it, Anonymous is little more than a spectacularly dumb, fitfully entertaining high-concept blockbuster that Emmerich has managed to trick the public into taking seriously despite the fact that its less profound than an average episode of South Park.
At the center of Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff's alternate history of the Elizabethan era is Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the 17th Earl of Oxford and the person Oxfordians commonly single out as the person most likely to have been the "real" William Shakespeare. In this telling, the preternaturally gifted de Vere wrote and performed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for Queen Elizabeth (played in the flower of youth by Joely Richardson and as an older woman by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave) when he was a precocious 9-year-old. A few years later though, his father dies and a teenaged Edward (Jamie Campbell Bower) enters the more puritanical household of Elizabeth's trusted counsel William Cecil (David Thewlis), who regards playwriting as the devil's work. But his charge's way with words grants him entrance to the Queen's heart and, eventually, her bed -- despite his marriage to Cecil's dour daughter. When their affair results in an unplanned pregnancy though, Elizabeth is spirited away to give birth to the child in secret, while Edward is barred from ever seeing her again. His clandestine romance finished, he funnels his now-copious free time into writing some the classic dramatic works of the Western canon, which he keeps stored on a shelf in his study, unread and unproduced.
Then, a matinee performance of a play by young scribe Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) reawakens Edward's dormant artistic ambitions. Summoning the writer to his manor, he hands him one of his own plays ("Henry V," for the record) and a proposal: stage the piece under Jonson's name and become the toast of London. Jonson balks at the idea of taking credit for another man's words, but his colleague -- a buffoonish actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), whose primary interests in life are wine and women -- has no such reservations. Following a rousing performance of "Henry V" that leaves the audience cheering, Shakespeare strides onstage clutching de Vere's script and thus the "legend" is born.
If Emmerich and Orloff wanted to make an alternate history that was in any way persuasive, it would have behooved them to have done some actual historical research first. Anonymous is rife with errors and distortions, not to mention a chronology that is, at best, severely confused and, at worst, a practical joke (the "Midsummer Night's Dream" retcon is just the tip of the iceberg; the movie also gets the year of Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe's death wrong and conveniently ignores the fact that de Vere himself died almost ten years before Shakespeare's final plays appeared). Any serious Oxfordian should think twice before using this film as an argument in favor of their pet theory. Then again, I'm not entirely convinced that the filmmakers intended for the movie to be taken all that seriously. Some of the story points (particularly a subplot involving the question of who will succeed Elizabeth on the throne) and surprise revelations (one word: incest) that Emmerich and Orloff have built into the narrative would feel more at home in a soap opera like The Tudors, which also mucked about with the historical record in the interest of manufacturing some juicy melodrama. When it's done well, these kinds of dramatized interpretations of history can be both entertaining and insightful: think HBO's Rome, Milos Forman's Amadeus (which this film baldly pillages in its closing moments) and Terrence Malick's The New World. Heck, even Shakespeare himself sweetened the past for his history plays. But this film is too structurally challenged, poorly written and tonally confused to succeed as actual history or invented history. Mostly it's a shapeless muddle, with a handful of good scenes adrift in a sea of general mediocrity.
Watching Anonymous, I came to feel that there were two other, much better movies trapped inside just trying to get out. The first is a Monty Python-style spoof of the Elizabethan theater scene in the tradition of Life of Brian (this is the film that Spall is clearly performing in; his wide-eyed clowning would make the late Graham Chapman proud). The second is a florid royal melodrama in the vein of Shekhar Kapur's highly stylized Elizabeth and its sequel The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett as a not-so-virginal Virgin Queen (this is the movie that Ifans and Redgrave are acting in and they're a genuine pleasure to watch, all the more so because of the deft way they navigate through some truly laughable material). But doing either of those films justice requires skills that Emmerich simply doesn't possess. He's an appropriator, not an innovator; even his most enjoyable films (Independence Day, Stargate) merrily recycle ideas and images from other pictures and just barely manage to mask that theft through sheer bombast. In Anonymous, he appropriates an entire school of thought to create another one of his patchwork productions that's full of sound and fury yet signifies nothing.
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