The tag line on the poster for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous reads “Was Shakespeare a Fraud?” Given the long history of William Shakespeare as Hollywood source and subject,this might be the only new angle left. And odd though the question may be, it matches our current cultural mindset, where everything is suspect and nothing worth trusting. Witness last week’s raging debate: “Is Beyoncé’s Baby Bump a Fraud?” The “evidence” was a slow motion clip of Beyoncé sitting down on a talk show set, either causing her detachable baby bump to shift or her dress to billow in the breeze created by her downward motion. I favor the latter explanation, also known as a sensibly presumed truth, just as I believe William Shakespeare wrote a few plays in his day.
But that’s just me. Emmerich thinks differently, and his approach to the Shakespeare question is Oxfordian with a twist of Prince Tudor. Having thoroughly examined our fictional future through a cynical and histrionic (but not humorless) lens in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich has turned his attention to the past. He and screenwriter John Orloff (A Mighty Heart) have embraced a kitchen sink’s worth of 20th-century conspiracy theories about the provenance of Shakespeare’s plays, each wilder than the last. Oliver Stone’s JFK looks reasonable compared to this.
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The first theory, the Oxfordian, originally put forth by John Thomas Looney in 1920, is that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote everything that has since been attributed to Shakespeare. In Anonymous, Edward (Rhys Ifans) dashes off a version of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream at the tender age of nine. But his literary efforts were considered an improper use of a nobleman’s time – “you’re writing again,” his wife hisses, as if she’d caught him fondling the scullery maid. “Why must you continue to humiliate my family?” Thus he scribbles in secret.
Borrowing from later variations on Looney’s research, known as the two-part Prince Tudor theories, Anonymous’ Edward is finally motivated to allow his previously private plays to be performed for romantic, sentimental and political reasons. You see, when he was younger and prettier (and played by Jamie Campbell Bower) Edward had a torrid affair with Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) and from their firelit, bear-rug unions was born a child. On the orders of her fiercely puritanical advisor, Sir William Cecil (David Thewlis) the boy was raised as the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and is now old enough to interfere with Cecil’s desire to crown as king the son of Mary Queen of Scots. Even having come up with the Oxfordian theory, Looney dismissed the bastard child theory as “likely to bring the whole cause into ridicule.” If he thought that was ridiculous, he’d have been gobsmacked by Anonymous‘ final twist.
The movie doesn’t just ask us to throw out all we thought we knew about Shakespeare. Elizabeth is a silly puppet, as immature in her 60s (played by Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave) as she is in her 30s. She can’t even keep track of where her many bastard sons end up. Emmerich has glommed onto a theory that is both snobbish—stripping Shakespeare’s creative powers because he was a commoner—and sexist, turning Elizabeth into a cute ninny who just likes to watch plays and worry about the state of her teeth.
But speaking of Shakespeare, where is he in all this? Usually atop a whore or trying to wheedle spare change out of someone. It must be said that if Shakespeare is to be portrayed as a buffoon of middling charms and great greed, actor Rafe Spall (son of actor Timothy Spall) is just the man for the job. The younger Spall, who could pass for Joseph Fiennes’ portly cousin (remember when movie makers dreamed of Shakespeare in Love, not in larceny?), gives a giggly performance seemingly modeled on Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus. He’s a hoot.
But Shakespeare is not even Edward’s choice for the man to assume responsibilities for his work. That would be playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), handpicked by Edward for the most complimentary of reasons, “You have no voice!” Ben stands hapless while Edward riffles through his piles of leather bound manuscripts and starts piling them into Jonson’s arms. Every play Edward hands off is either a secret love letter to Elizabeth (Romeo and Juliet) or a piece of propaganda designed to be a thorn in the side of Cecil and his hunchbacked son Robert (Richard III).
Hilariously, Ben isn’t even impressed enough by the work to lease out his name to Edward, but shady Shakespeare has no such scruples. I don’t know what conspiracy theory Emmerich consulted that made Ben Jonson the necessary middleman in this fantastical tale of literary misattribution, but he does, it must be said, sew it all up together rather tidily. Take for instance, the fact that the real Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford, died in 1604 and 12 new “Shakespeare “ plays appeared after that date. Emmerich and Orloff have an explanation! The movie throws justifications at us with the same unwavering determination as a small child arguing the need to stay up past bedtime.
As Edward, Ifans plays it all to the hilt, seething, simmering and arching an imperious brow at the lowly theater types. It’s a fun role, especially for a man who might be eager to slough off the enduring image of himself as that unappealing dope in Notting Hill, standing in his underwear agog at Julia Roberts. He sells this high camp entertainment as well as one could, but Anonymous sticks in the craw. It is speculation presented as history for the gullible, a nonsensical fiction that is woefully representative of how little credence contemporary society gives to the possibility that sometimes, people tell the truth. When Beyoncé gives birth, even if that baby has her eyes and Jay-Z’s lips, gossip sites will question from whence it came, just as some of those who see Emmerich’s film might believe the Bard was just the pawn in a lovelorn Earl’s Elizabethan soap opera.
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