Shakespeare in Doubt
When you set out to make a flick about how Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare, and you do it like this, you’re only asking for trouble. You’re making the critic’s job so deliciously easy. Listen: Anonymous is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is a fusty nut with no kernel. It speaks an infinite deal of nothing.
Just give me a random Shakespearean insult generator, and I can do this all day.
Hey, maybe someone not called William Shakespeare really did write all those amazing, confounding plays. Nothing is outside the realm of possibility, right? But if Anonymous is the best case for it… bwahahaha. This is a sordid movie: not the good, juicy sort of sordid, but the dreary and depressing sort of sordid. It suggests with a haughty condescension that, You know what? All that blather about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, about bettering oneself through brains and diligence and hard work? It’s not possible. There’s no way in hell that the peasant son of an illiterate common glovemaker could have ever acquired the knowledge or developed the talent to write those wonderful plays and those glorious sonnets. So there.
I think that’s my new go-to vilification: “You son of a glovemaker.”
This is a ridiculous movie. Not the funny, wicked sort of ridiculous, but the overblown and histrionic sort of ridiculous. It’s historical fan fiction — the script is by John Orloff (who also wrote the near incoherent Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole) — that appears to have no awareness of how blinkered and nerdy and gosh-darn earnest it is. Rafe Spall’s (One Day, Hot Fuzz) caricature of the drunken foolhardy actor William Shakespeare is hilarious… except it’s not played for comedy. Director Roland Emmerich plays it for outrage — outrage! I tell you — pointing an indignant finger and sputtering unintelligibly with rage: “Look at this moron! How could he have written Hamlet?! Grrrr!” It’s not Spall’s fault: he just belongs in the Blackadder version of this story. The one with the jokes and the satire to make all the preposterous stuff here — which is all of it — palatable.
But we’re supposed to take this seriously. It’s drama! Nay, it’s tragedy! The brilliant, brilliant mind of Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, has been sullied lo these many centuries, his good name undermined by a nefarious plot to erase him from the annals of history. Everyone was in on it: His adoptive father, William Cecil (David Thewlis: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), whose only motives ever in dealing with De Vere were about increasing his own wealth and power. The playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Marie Antoinette), to whom De Vere patronizingly granted his work — which had to be done in secret, plays and poetry being so squalid and sleazy and not appropriate for an aristocrat — only to get screwed over when Jonson let the cat out of the bag to that oaf Shakespeare, who then proceeded to blackmail poor De Vere. Even Queen Elizabeth herself (Joely Richardson [The Last Mimzy, The Affair of the Necklace] as the younger, Vanessa Redgrave [Cars 2, Miral] as the older), who was a very, very naughty lady indeed.
This is the sort of flick where it’s not enough to admit that, no, the Virgin Queen was in all likelihood not literally a virgin and surely had plenty of lovers (“virgin” would have referred to her lack of a husband, and hence her lack of a man controlling her)… but it must go that extra mile and cast her as a nasty ho who ends up doing some despicable things. Not deliberately or knowingly, of course, but that’s what comes of nasty-ho-dom. It’s not enough to put forth the idea that only a well-educated nobleman such as Edward De Vere must, simply must have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare… but it has to take the extra leap that he surely also wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream way back when he was a kid. (We see it performed for the young Queen Elizabeth, with Edward himself playing Puck, looking all of 12 years old.) He was that honking big a genius.
But William Shakespeare couldn’t have been that honking big a genius.
Of course, if De Vere was that honking big a genius, couldn’t he have figured out a way to ensure that his name would, at some point in the future, get reconnected with the work? Shouldn’t he have had a cunning plan?
Two things I must give Anonymous serious props for. One: Emmerich’s (2012, 10,000 B.C.) recreation of Elizabethan England looks amazing onscreen. You can practically smell the stench of the muddy sewers that are the streets. I do mean that as a compliment. There’s nothing overdone about the clothing or the interiors: this all looks and feels palpably authentic and lived-in. It’s not costume-drama prettified.
Two: Rhys Ifans (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) is dangerously fucking sexy as De Vere. The leather and the beard and the angst and the sublimated everything. Yum.
But what we have here is comical historical tragedy. Without the comedy. Which it desperately needs. It would, ironically, be easier to take it seriously if were said in jest. Jesters do oft prove prophets, as some famous playwright once wrote…