Earlier today, I saw Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous and wow. I don’t even know where to begin with just how thoroughly bad a film Anonymous is. Yes, I know that this film has gotten good reviews from mainstream
sellouts critics like Roger Ebert. And yes, I heard the old people sitting behind me and Jeff in the theater going, “So, do you think Shakespeare really wrote those plays?” after the movie ended. I’m aware of all of that and yet, I can only say one thing in response: Anonymous is the worst film of 2011 so far.
In its clumsy and rather smug way, Anonymous attempts to convince us that the plays of William Shakespeare were actually written by a boring nobleman named Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans, giving a very boring performance). De Vere, you see, is obsessed with writing but as a member of a noble family, he cannot publicly do anything as lowbrow as publish his plays himself. So, he pays playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) to take credit for the plays. However, Johnson has moral qualms about taking credit for another man’s work. However, Johnson’s sleazy (and, the film suggest, sociopathic) friend Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, who at least appears to be enjoying himself in the role) has no such qualms and, after murdering Christopher Marlowe, Will is soon the most celebrated “writer” in England. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave, giving a performance so terrible that you know she’ll probably get an Oscar for it) is growing senile and De Vere starts to realize that he can use his literary talents to attempt to determine who will sit on the English throne after Elizabeth dies.
However, before we can even start in on that plot, we have to sit through the film’s opening sequence. Taking place in the modern day, we watch as actor Derek Jacobi (and not Malcolm McDowell, I’m sad to say) delivers a lecture on why he thinks that Shakespeare didn’t write a word. His argument basically comes down to the fact that Shakespeare was “the son of a glovemaker” and therefore, how could he have become the world’s greatest writer? How could he have written about royalty when he himself was a commoner who didn’t go to a prestigious university? How could he have been a genius when we know so little about his life? And blah blah blah. I understand that Jacobi actually frequently gives lectures like the one we hear in this film and I, for one, will make sure never to attend one because, quite frankly, Jacobi comes across like something of a pompous ass here. It doesn’t help that Emmerich films Jacobi’s lecture in much the same way he filmed the world falling apart in 2012. Seriously, a boring old man ranting on a stage is still a boring old man regardless of how many times the camera zooms into his boring, old face.
This introductory lecture pretty much sets the tone for the entire film to follow and, by screwing this up, Emmerich pretty much screw up everything that follows. However, Jacobi is not entirely blameless for the film’s failure. Number one, he delivers the lecture with all the righteous fury of someone talking about something … well, something more relevent than whether Edward De Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Secondly, Jacobi comes across as if he’s sincerely convinced that he’s telling me something that I haven’t already heard from a high school English teacher, a college creative writing instructor, and a drama professor. Seriously, guys — the whole idea that some people claim Shakespeare was a fraud is not that mind-blowing. Thirdly, and most importantly, Jacobi’s main argument seems to primarily be an elitist one. Shakespeare is not “one of us” so therefore, Shakespeare must be a fraud. In short, Derek Jacobi comes across as a snob, a bore, and an upper-class twit. He’s the type of blowhard that you secretly dread will end up moving in next door to you. I can imagine him now coming over and saying, “Hi, my name’s Derek Jacobi. Might I borrow some salt and while you get it, I’ll explain why I hate glovemakers so.”
Both the film and Sir Derek George Jacobi reveal next to no regard for the wonders of imagination when they argue that Shakespeare couldn’t have written about royalty because he himself was not of royal blood. But, I wonder — how hard is it to write about royalty, really? Is Hamlet really a play about a prince or is it a play about a man who is struggling to maintain his idealism in an increasingly harsh world? Is Henry V really about royalty or is it about a formerly irresponsible boy who is being forced to grow up? To take Jacobi’s argument to its logical conclusion, why could Shakespeare not write about royalty but apparently De Vere could write about gravediggers and loan sharks?
The answer to that question is not to be found in Ifans’ glum, humorless performance. As played by Rhys Ifans, Edward De Vere is a blank slate who seems to be incapable of the joy and the love of life that is apparent in some of the plays that Jacobi credits him with. The film’s version of Edward De Vere doesn’t seem to be capable of telling a good joke, let alone writing one. Yet, we are to believe that he is the author of Much Ado About Nothing? It’s enough to make you wonder if anyone involved in this film has ever bothered to read Shakespeare or do they just use his work (and a wikipedia-level understanding of British history) as a roadmap for their own conspiracy theories?
Once you get past the whole Shakespeare-as-fraud thing, it’s a bit difficult to really talk about the plot of Anonymous because there really isn’t much of a plot. There’s a lot of people plotting things and there’s a lot of scenes of distinguished looking men standing in ornate waiting rooms and either whispering or yelling about who deserves to succeed Elizabeth as ruler. I’m an unapologetic history nerd and I usually love all the soap opera theatrics of British royalty (both past and present) so I should have taken to these scenes like a cat pouncing on a bird but I didn’t. All of the palace intrigue left me cold and bored, largely because it all just felt as if they were being randomly dropped in from other, better films about the Elizabethan era. The plot of Anonymous doesn’t so much unfold as it just shows up uninvited and then refuses to go home.
Storywise, Anonymous tells us the following (and yes, these are spoilers):
1) Queen Elizabeth, the so-called “virgin” queen, was apparently something of a slut and had a countless amount of illegitimate children who apparently all ended up living next door to each other as if they were all in the cast of some sort of renaissance sitcom. “This week on Tyler Perry’s Meet the Tudors…”
2) Her first bastard son was none other than Edward De Vere who several years later — unaware of his true parentage — would become Elizabeth’s lover and would end up impregnating Elizabeth with the Earl of Southampton. The Earl of Southampton would eventually grow up to become De Vere’s ward though he would never realize that he was also De Vere’s son and half-brother. (And all together now: Ewwwwww!)
3) The Earl of Southampton would then go onto to become an ally of the Earl of Essex, yet another one of Elizabeth’s unacknowledged sons and when Essex would attempt to claim his right to succeed to the English throne, De Vere would attempt to aid in his efforts by writing Richard III.
4) Oh, and finally, William Shakespeare personally murdered playwright Christopher Marlowe. In real-life, Marlowe was murdered in 1593. The film takes place in 1598 so I’m guessing that either the filmmakers are just stupid or else they “embellished” the story in order to give us another reason to hate Shakespeare. However, seeing as how Emmerich and Rhys Ifan and Derek Jacobi have been out there bragging about how authentic and scrupulous this film is, it’s hard to really forgive the “whole embellishment” argument when they’re essentially accusing Shakespeare of committing a very real crime against a very real contemporary. It’s especially odd that the film pretty much drops the whole Shakespeare-as-murderer subplot right after bringing it up. It’s hard not to feel that the filmmakers assumed that nobody would either bother or be smart enough to catch them on this.
Needless to say, this material is all so melodramatic and over-the-top that it should have been great fun, a so-bad-its-good masterpiece of bad dialogue and tacky costumes. Well, the film is full of bad dialogue and the costumes are tacky but yet, the film itself is never any fun. The film’s sin isn’t that it’s ludicrous. No, this film commits the sin of taking itself far too seriously. This is a film that has fallen in love with its own delusions of adequacy. In short, this is a film directed by Roland Emmerich.
Indeed, there’s many reasons why Anonymous fails as a film. John Orloff’s screenplay is ludicrous, the film’s premise is never as interesting as it should be, the film’s version of 16th Century London is so obviously CGI that it resembles nothing less than a commercial for Grand Theft Auto: The Elizabethan Age, and the film is full of overdone performances. (Vanessa Redgrave might get an Oscar nomination for her performance here but seriously, she’s beyond terrible.) Ultimately, however, all of the blame must be given to Roland Emmerich. As a director, he is just so damn literal-minded that he doesn’t seem to be capable of understanding just how stupid this movie truly is. At first this film might seem like a change of pace for Emmerich but after watching just a few minutes, it quickly becomes apparent that we’re dealing with the same idiot who had arctic wolves running around New York City in The Day After Tomorrow.
I’ve seen a few interviews with Emmerich in which he has said that the question of Shakespeare’s authorship is something that “many people don’t want to discuss.” If I remember correctly, he said the same thing about the Mayan prophecy that the world would end in 2012 and I wouldn’t be surprised if he trotted out that line in regards to climate change back when he did Day After Tomorrow. Sadly, what Roland Emmerich doesn’t seem to get is that people are willing to discuss all of those topics. They just don’t want to discuss them with him.