Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 02, 2011 12:58 pm 
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A folly

Anonymous is the German-born blockbuster director Roland Emmericah's movie, penned by John Orloff, promoting the theory that Shakespeare's works were actually written by Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. You can't blame the Oxfordians, in a way. Little is known about Shakespeare, and those details that are known seem odd or anomalous. And who would not like to know more? But the Oxfordians begin with a distasteful and undemocratic prejudice, the notion that a commoner could not have been a great writer, or known about the thoughts of kings (but then how could an earl know about the thoughts of gravediggers and clowns?). Furthermore, this movie is an alarming hodgepodge that throws in lots more far-fetched fantasies. It wants us to believe that Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, the canny mistress of statecraft, was a lusty and imprudent young woman who produced a number of bastards, including one by the Earl of Oxford. It invents political intrigues that never occurred.

Worse yet, Emmerich has elicited the services of famous actors like Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave, as well as David Thewlis and Rhys Ifans, in the service of this spurious theory, and they're good, so they can add credibility and life to most anything. Should we blame him or them for their contribution to this claptrap? Joely Richardson, who plays the young Elizabeth I, bears little resemblance to the haughty and elegant Redgrave, cast as the aging Queen, even though she's her daughter. Still less does the wild, sexy-looking Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays the young Oxford, resemble Rhys Ifans, who plays the middle-aged Earl as a forlorn, droopy soul and doesn't at all look like Bower.

But worst of all, this movie builds up the works of Shakespeare by undercutting Will Shakespeare the person, all the other Elizabethan playwrights, and the English Renaissance itself. Shakespeare the man (played by Rafe Spall) is depicted as a drunken, illiterate dodo, and a greedy manipulator when Essex was forced to pay him to "pretend" to have written Shakespeare's works. Shakespeare's fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe are undercut. Viewers who haven't studied the period might be forgiven for thinking these two very great writers to have been at least while Oxford was writing nothing but harmless drudges. One of them is made to declare that the age itself, even Queen Elizabeth, will only be remembered because Shakespeare, that is Oxford, put ink to paper. Yes, the works of Shakespeare are the triumph of the age, but there would not have been a Shakespeare if this hadn't been a brilliant moment of intellectual and artistic flowering, a time when the English language was incridibly rich and fertile, and many were penning wonderful poetry. But that is forgotten. It would seem the Oxfordians are not very familiar with Elizabethan literature. Anyway in its tunnel-vision pursuit of the Oxfordian theory, Anonymous perpetrates a depressingly false and misleading picture of the Elizabethan age. The idea that, whether this movie promotes a spurious theory or not, it will draw new readers to Shakespeare and new enthusiasts to the period seems very naive. It's not good to draw people to a subject with false and misleading stuff.

Anonymous weaves scenes of Elizabethan Shakespeare play productions in with back-and-forth scenes of the young and older Oxrord the young and older Elizabeth, and various plots and power plays, and so forth, and along with these scenes are various pet ideas of the Oxfordians, like the notion that Polonius, in Hamlet, was based on Lord Burghley (or Burleigh), Elizabeth's Lord Chancellor, and that therefore Hamlet must be a self-portrait of the Earl, who knew and had resented Burghley.

So much here won't survive scrutiny, which is true of the Oxfordian thesis in general. The young earl is depicted as writing, putting on, performing in, and acknowledging his authorship of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a teenager -- to Elizabeth, in front of the court. In that case, how could he later on under Puritan family pressure mange to hide his authorship of plays? The court had already seen signs of his literary and specifically dramatic genius. But this is used as a lead-in to later scenes of young Oxford squabbling and having sex with the Queen. This isn't a better picture of Elizabeth than it is of her age. She's either a slut, when young, or an itchy, sickly old lady when older: Vanessa Redgrave always has a certain elderly glamor, but she sacrifices much of her usual dignity in the service of a theory that she evidently espouses herself.

Indeed a number of famous people, including Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles according to a Wikipedia article, have taken the "anti-Stratfordian" stand, that is, the idea that Shakespeare didn't really write Shakespeare. And this has lent undeserved luster to the Oxfordians. But the folly of the famous does not really grant credibility to an unproven and unprovable theory.

Emmerich is, furthermore, hardly a convincing source of advocacy on anything. The Day After Tomorrow, which used a pop global warming theme, suggested the director's involvement in causes is just another promotional device. Oxfordian theory is pretty shallow in itself, but his support of it in this clumsy and far-fetched "historical" film makes it look even more so. There is in fact no end to the follies of Anonymous. That might be all very well if it added up to an enjoyable film, but this is really a mess, with the unfortunate involvement of some good actors.

Anonymous began theatrical distribution in the US and UK on October 28, 2011.

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