Give credit where credit is due: Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare movie is not a Roland Emmerich Shakespeare movie. There are no earth-shattering explosions, no hordes of civilians fleeing for their lives like in the rest of Emmerich’s sound-and-fury-filled oeuvre, which includes the likes of everyone-outrun-the-Ice-Age thriller “The Day After Tomorrow”, everyone-outrun-the-giant-lizard thriller “Godzilla” and everyone-outrun-the-Mayan-prophesy thriller “2012”.
Nope, all we get here is just a good, ol’ fashioned conspiracy theory postulating that the Bard’s entire works were actually written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (played by a stone-faced Rhys Ifans).
I imagine serious Shakespeare scholars, nearly all of who wholeheartedly reject the “Oxfordian theory,” must feel about this film the same way I did when I saw the 9/11 conspiracy documentary “Loose Change” or watched Donald Trump demand to see President Obama’s birth certificate: namely, that the world cannot possibly be populated by so many people who willfully blind themselves to facts.
But Sony expected to incense a small faction of intellectuals into protesting too much. That’s the marketing’s driving force. The producers were counting on public reactions like the one from the Shakespearean Birthplace Trust, which protested the film’s release in the UK by taping over his name on street signs in Warwickshire. (How this discourages rather than encourages a movie questioning his place in history is a puzzle I will be pondering for ages.)
See, without the protests over what is so obviously a piece of fluff, there’s no controversy to market. Derek Jacobi, famous Shakespearean actor and an Oxfordian in his own right, stokes the fires by narrating the film’s prologue and epilogue in essentially the same manner he did for Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V”, although to call his lines soliloquies is an insult to whoever the hell actually wrote Henry V.
What we essentially have here is a humorless “Amadeus” – or, for that matter, a humorless “Shakespeare In Love”. Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff (who also wrote the Mariane Pearl movie “A Mighty Heart” and … err, “The Owls Of Ga’Hoole”) have been making a lot of noise in the press about how this film will revolutionize the way we see Shakespeare, but there are enough gaping holes in their vision to ensure no one will ever take this pseudo-history very seriously. Quite considerate of the filmmakers, don’t you think?
That said, “Anonymous” is an impressively lavish production, an old-fashioned, bombastic costume drama that thinks it is peddling revolutionary ideas, instead of silly ones. If, like me, you get a kick out of period-movie tropes, there’s a downright gluttonous amount of them here. We get a fencing duel in the hedge maze; a treacherous adviser who hisses into the Queen’s ear from the throne’s shadows; and most deliciously of all, a Puritan household outraged that their foster child would spend his days writing – gasp! – poetry.
Would that I understood more about Elizabethan politics before wandering into this screening, though. The more Emmerich and Orloff pushed stories of royal intrigue and the question of who will succeed Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave, no stranger to Shakespeare) over actual playwriting, the more lost I became. Actually, perhaps I should rephrase that to reclaim some of my own intellectual dignity: As Emmerich and Orloff kept Quantum Leaping through various points in the Earl of Oxford’s life, without warning or distinguishing visual characteristics, and as the roster of similarly-dressed men with identical facial hair giving grandiose speeches kept growing, my initial preoccupation with the film’s supposedly central idea wandered further and further into the wilderness.
Oh, and the plays themselves? With rare exception, they’re relegated to a single montage of the best scenes from Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc. – it actually reminded me a bit of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Abridged. We see them filtered through the eyes of Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), here a Salieri-like figure, a gatekeeper to the works’ secrets who’s nearly driven mad with jealousy. And William himself (Rafe Spall) is a bit player in this whole endeavor, an egotistic, illiterate buffoon who only shows up to extort more money from his ghostwriter.
For all we can see, though, this ghostwriter may be getting his works from someone else. Outside of a single curtain-stabbing and a hunchbacked rival, we never see the Earl in his moments of inspiration. We barely even see him writing. He already has the entire canon of masterpieces lying in wait on his shelf, and pulls each one down as the mood calls for it.
The film cares not about convincing you that the Earl of Oxford could have written Shakespeare’s body of work; it simply wants you to accept as fact that he did, and then store this knowledge as supplementary to the squabbles of the royal family that take up the bulk of the running time. So the reason the movie was made in the first place, the reason its detractors are so up in arms, is ultimately so immaterial as to be insulting, regardless of how surprisingly watchable Emmerich’s efforts may be.
It speaks, yet says nothing. What of that?
“Anonymous” opens nationwide today.