*. There are two obvious places to get started here. The first, and it’s something that took me by surprise, is that this is indeed a Roland Emmerich film. Yes, the guy who brought you Universal Soldier, Independence Day, Godzilla, and 2012 was going highbrow here. Sort of.
*. This brings me to the second point, which is that this is an action flick cleverly disguised as a costume drama relating to the career of William Shakespeare. The twist being that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare. The plays attributed to Shakespeare were, in his version, written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
*. There’s long been a cottage industry in making the argument that Shakespeare’s plays were written by somebody else, and Oxford is probably the leading alternative candidate. I don’t think this is at all likely, and scarcely even possible when you think about it, but it amuses some people to imagine such an alternate history.
*. Does Emmerich believe such a theory? Or screenwriter John Orloff? I don’t know. They talk as if they do on their DVD commentary track (Orloff, for example, doesn’t think Shakespeare could have set so many of his plays in Italy if he’d never been to Italy himself), but Anonymous doesn’t present any kind of scholarly case or argument for Oxford and both Emmerich and Orloff stress that they were taking all kind of liberties with the historical record in order to make things more dramatic anyway. I mean, Oxford and Elizabeth don’t just have a love child in the form of the Earl of Southampton, we also discover that Oxford is Elizabeth’s son! Gadzooks!
*. I don’t think historical accuracy makes any difference to whether or not this is a good movie though. JFK is a great movie, even if its spider-web of theories for how Kennedy was killed are crazy. And bringing up Oliver Stone isn’t inappropriate here, as Anonymous has a similarly fractured narrative, jumping about in a way that takes an already complicated plot and makes it even harder to follow. Was confusion part of the plan? Orloff thought it “very risky” and I think he’s right. Even going in knowing the basics of what was happening I was getting lost at times.
*. But despite the hash it makes of history and its scrambled storytelling I was pleasantly surprised by Anonymous. It’s quite an enjoyable movie, helped along by some good effects (most of it was shot in a studio in front of a green screen) and very good performances informed by interesting interpretations of the characters. Rhys Ifans is a world-weary Oxford, David Thewlis (barely recognizable under heavy make-up) is a William Cecil not to be trifled with, and Vanessa Redgrave is the old Elizabeth, by turns domineering and dotty (Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson plays the young Elizabeth as more of an bright and frisky sex kitten).
*. Shakespeare is played by Rafe Spall and he’s presented not so much as the lowly “man from Stratford” as an illiterate fool who becomes an improbable rock star, even bodysurfing through the pit at the Globe. The part of Fool was, in turn, meant as a way of making this into a Shakespearean movie about Shakespeare. Apparently the incest angle was meant to have the same purpose, though I don’t recall incest being much of a theme in Shakespeare.
*. It’s a crazy story, but zips along with the help of lots of action scenes. Critics joked that Emmerich was going to blow the Globe Theatre up but in the end he settles for burning it down. There are sword fights and sweaty couplings and even Essex’s rebellion being stamped out by a whiff of grapeshot on London Bridge. And the script is pretty clever in places. More in the Hollywood manner than the Stoppardian wit of Shakespeare in Love, but I got a smile out of several scenes.
*. It’s an American take on Shakespeare in another, deeper way as well. In the arguments over the authorship question that helped drum up publicity when it was released Emmerich attacked the “arrogance of the literary establishment” in defending Shakespeare. He even singled out James Shapiro, an academic whose book on the subject, Contested Will, I highly recommend. In this raging against an elite establishment and the putting forth of alternative facts there is something that places Anonymous on a continuum running from JFK to QAnon. It’s the paranoid style in American history, which in 2011 was still a few years away from its full flowering.
*. Emmerich self-financed the production, at least to some extent, and it ended up bombing. That’s too bad. It was well received by critics and for my money it’s one of his best movies, if not the best. But it makes quite a lot of demands on the audience’s attention, and I’m not sure it was an audience all that interested in Shakespeare in the first place. One imagines a Venn diagram showing the audiences for Shakespeare and Emmerich overlapping very little. But you can’t say Emmerich didn’t try to make a connection.