Roland Emmerich is the doyen of historically inaccurate disasterpieces, the pre-eminent cinematic misinterpreter of scientific theories, and the gullible go-to-guy when it comes to half-baked conspiracy thrillers. Therefore, his Anonymous is as close as he’s ever come to a ‘perfect storm’. The German auteur has picked up on the long-standing (but not at all respected and barely entertained) Oxford fringe theory suggesting that William Shakespeare was not actually the author (ZOMG!) of the classic plays and sonnets attributed to his name, and thus, does not deserve his ‘Story By’ credit on Gnomeo and Juliet. The theory, and now the film, puts forward the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, as the true author of Hamlet, Macbeth et al. Emmerich conveys it with all the artistry and finesse we normally attribute to motion pictures bearing his name.
‘What ignited these rumours?’ you ask. Well, de Vere was an aristocrat, and surely such poetry could have only come from the mind of an educated soul rather than a commoner like Bill Shakespeare! The next best piece of evidence relates to the fact there is little recorded history of Will’s upbringing and eventual death. And as we all know, ‘Where there’s no smoke, there’s fire’. It’s an assumption as rational as that which has inspired ‘Birthers’ to seek the real location of President Obama’s spawning, and the ‘truth-seeking’ is often conducted with the same level of smug, fingers-in-ears self-assuredness by people fixated on things that just don’t matter. How I wished that this film had instead been called Anonymouse, and addressed the far more interesting authorship question surrounding Pixar’s masterpiece Ratatouille. Who was really responsible for its genius? Oscar winning director and screenwriter Brad Bird, or the man he replaced, Jan Pinkava? We need answers!
The opening admittedly sets the stage – quite literally – in an intriguing manner, with thespian Derek Jacobi rushing into a theatre and preparing an audience for a tale of intrigue, as well as an alternate look at the legend of Shakespeare (this is the second picture in a row in which Jacobi has been hired to appear as himself – auditioning for Curb Your Enthusiasm, perhaps?). We meet de Vere (the always excellent Rhys Ifans), a mostly ineffective Earl with a penchant for poetry. He visits The Rose and is awed by the effusive response from the audience to the comic tripe penned by struggling writer Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto). Unable to publish his dissident works but eager to incite a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth’s (Vanessa Redgrave) scheming advisors, de Vere blackmails Jonson into staging the plays under his name. Jonson relents. Thankfully, a boozy, murderous, illiterate actor by the name of William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, straight off the set of a Carry On film, it seems) jumps at the opportunity. As Julius Caesar, Henry V and Romeo & Juliet become renowned smash hits and the audience turns to putty in their hands, de Vere orchestrates a plot against his former-lover Queen Lizzy. Meanwhile, Ben seethes over Shakespeare’s growing popularity and the Earl’s unparalleled talent. He is Salieri to their Amadeus; Joey Fatone to their Justin Timberlake.
Anonymous is rife with anachronisms, and scholars have long since decried this long-standing rumour as hogwash, but I’ll leave the factual nit-picking to experts in the field. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t actually create Facebook in an attempt to win back an ex-girlfriend, and Hitler wasn’t actually gunned down by The Bear Jew in a French movie theatre, but the truth can often be an obstacle in the way of entertaining, challenging, and – ironically – honest art. To instantly denounce and dismiss a film that approaches history from a slightly skewed perspective would be to limit cinema as a forum for flights of fancy, and would place limitations on authors who are aiming at something more significant than the mere retelling of past events (The Bard never placed such limits on himself).
The problem with Anonymous lies in what it changes the story of Shakespeare into. Whereas he was once the poet of the people who would go on to define an era, he is transformed here into an impotent politician who wrote subversive texts with the intent of staging a coup. In Anonymous, the collected works of Shakespeare are mere propaganda, and propaganda – by definition – is shallow, untruthful, and holds artistic merit only as a document of a period in time. We know that is not the case with these plays; even if they did have a revolutionary slant, they are emotionally resonant and lasting. Screenwriter John Orloff and Emmerich are incapable of expressing these works in a manner that befits them; not as a tool for rebellion, revenge, romance, anything. Too much of the picture falls back on the hackneyed tropes of tired period pieces that don’t have this unique idea to play with. Orloff is so enraptured with twists and “shocking” Elizabethan reveals (incest! surprise beheadings!), he completely disregards the ‘anonymous’ author at the story’s core. Neither de Vere nor his tales ever really seem central to the plot, and when we see them brought to life they don’t feel quite as electrifying as they should be. The problem with Anonymous isn’t that it claims someone else wrote all those beautiful words; the problem is that it doesn’t know what they mean, or what to do with them.
I mentioned Ratatouille jokingly earlier, but there is a valid connection. To quote it: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” It is indeed true that an Earl could produce as groundbreaking and defining works as a commoner, but in this specific case, an Earl didn’t. It is also true someone could craft a thrilling, intriguing and engaging movie out of this premise. Emmerich hasn’t.
Anonymous arrives in Australian cinemas November 3, 2011.