Anonymous (2011) Roland Emmerich

Production Budget: $30 million

Worldwide Gross: $15 million

At first glance I was surprised to see Roland Emmerich’s name attached to this project.  It would kind of now seeing Michael Bay direct a movie about the debate of whether Socrates was real or just a construct of Plato.  I don’t see anything scholarly coming from someone who made The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, or 2012 but who knows.

Now while I am familiar with Shakespeares plays I can’t exactly weigh in on this debate of if he wrote it or if the Earl of Oxford wrote it.  I tend to go with the overwhelming historical consensus and their response which was the scholarly equivalent of a pimp slap to this movie.  At the end of the day I don’t really care that much.  On some level I guess I would want the proper guy get the proper credit but ultimately I don’t spend any time thinking about it.  The plays and the words are what matter because they are beautiful and it doesn’t matter to me if they were penned by Shakespeare or Anonymous or Carrot Top.

What is odd is that despite this being a topic Emmerich apparently feels passionate about, he doesn’t do much to present a case for Oxford being the author of the plays.  Not only is there not much evidence, but many historians and critics have rightly pointed out how the narrative is filled with inaccuracies and how the historical timeline is all mixed up.  Now Emmerich has said that his movie is meant to be like Amadeus which jumped around a bit too but was done for dramatic purposes.  That’s fine I guess and I’ll judge it on those merits too, but it seems odd he doesn’t seem to care at all about facts in a case over a scholarly subject he seems to care about.  In the end it seems like every other conspiracy theory BS you dismiss out of hand.

So let me instead look at this movie as simply a dramatic movie and judge it as such.  Anonymous is still overly long and confusing and as an attempt at an Amadeus-ish type of movie it fails in that regard too.  In Amadeus, we were fully invested in the character of Salieri.  Salieri is tortured by the fact he gives up everything for his passion and some punk kid can fart out masterpieces on the fly.  There is a little bit of that in Anonymous with Oxford and local playwright Ben Jonson, however it doesn’t even have a fraction of the same impact.  Too little time is invested in the relationship and it ends up with scene after scene of Jonson pretty much pouting in the corner.

A good portion of the movie is about royal politicking and the movie really lost me there.  We get subplots about Oxford’s illegitimate son making a play for the throne, we get Robert Cecil doing his Grima Wormtongue impression with the Queen, and we get a strange romance subplot with Oxford and the Queen.The reason why I say it lost me is because I don’t feel this ever gels with the other plot thread of Oxford writing his plays.  Yes I understand the plays were considered seditious and part of the scholarly argument is that Oxford was making social commentary in secret from his plays.  However none of this really amounts to anything storywise.  Oxford published all his plays and there were no power shifts, there were no regime changes, there were no sweeping reforms.  In the end Cecil is still in power and things go on with no huge historical change.  While Shakespeare’s writings are some of the best stories ever written, they didn’t change anything politically as much as the movie would like to say.  That’s why I wish Emmerich would have copied a bit more from Amadeus and decided to make this a more intimate portrait of two characters.  This would have been much more interesting if you decided to really delve into the stories of two men; one man who is a genius but has to live in anonymity, and another who is dedicated but is unappreciated in his own work while getting undeserved credit for another’s work.  If you just focused on that, it would have worked out a whole lot better.

Anonymous fails because it wants to have it both ways and fails in both regards.  It wants to be historical and present a case for Oxford but it sacrifices its credibility by messing up the facts for the purposes of the dramatic story.  As a dramatic work it fails because the personal drama is lost in a mess of plot threads and uninteresting royal politicking.  The characters are flat and the acting is bad with the absolute worst being David Thewlis in a brief role.  It is downright embarassing how awful he is in this movie.  The worst thing is this movie felt way too long.  I was well done with this movie at the 90 minute mark and let out a scream of agony that I had another 40 minutes to go.  This was a dull mess and I can’t see myself recommending this movie to anyone.

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2 Responses to “Anonymous (2011) Roland Emmerich”

  1. TrangleC Says:

    Being a German myself, I think it wasn’t a good idea for Emmerich to try this in the first place. I think the English speaking world would not have appreciated an outsider trying to taint or even just question Shakespeare’s legacy even if the film would have been good. In my experience Americans and Brits can be very protective of their beloved great bard.

    • Matthew Says:

      I don’t think this is a question of the film director’s nationality, or believing that it’s wrong to question Shakespeare’s legacy. But the film “Anonymous” has gone too far in its supposition and use of artistic license. As the son of an Alderman, William Shakespeare was entitled to be educated at Stratford Grammar School. Education was free up to the age of 16 for sons of Aldermen, and William’s parents are very unlikely to have let this opportunity slip. Shakespeare would not therefore have been educated in the basic village school portrayed in “Anonymous”. It is said that the character of Sir Hugh Evans in “The Merry Wives” was modelled on Welsh teacher Thomas Jenkins. William would have received a very thorough and advanced education in Greek and Latin, and have become familiar with much classical literature. The translation of works by Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Erasmus, Cicero and Ovid would have demanded a strong level of literacy, and most likely fostered a desire to read more contemporary works.

      There is no reason to suppose that William Shakespeare could not have possessed and developed a high level of ability. His mother was from an old Warwickshire county family of gentleman farmers; In addition to being glove-maker, wool merchant and money-lender, his father was also a member of the town council. William was comparatively well-educated by the age of sixteen. This is far removed from the “Anonymous” image of William Shakespeare as a barely literate ‘country bumpkin’. It is worth noting that Christopher Marlowe was a shoemaker’s son and Ben Jonson’s stepfather was a bricklayer. Clearly, ‘humble origins’ do not necessarily prevent intelligence or bar progress.

      As a member of the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare would have visited royal and noble courts and observed courtly procedure and heard gossip. The Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron during the 1590s, and could well have related much court intrigue to him. Shakespeare did not need the knowledge of the Earl of Oxford to know of life in the Royal Court.

      Shakespeare’s plays contain many references to glove-making and leather work (one of his father’s several professions). They also contain references to the Forest of Arden, and often champion basic country ways. These subjects are very unlikely to have come from the mind of the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare also displays a good knowledge of medicinal cures in his later plays; this has been attributed to his having Dr. John Hall as physician and son-in-law.

      The University-educated playwright Richard Greene was resentful of the increasingly successful Shakespeare. In 1592’s “Groatsworth of Wit”, Greene called him an ‘upstart crow’ and lampooned his writing style. The editor of this autobiography met Shakespeare, and in his preface to “Kind Harts Dreame” describes William as a graceful writer and an upright and civil man. Hardly the drunken oaf portrayed in ‘Anonymous’.

      “Anonymous” offers no substance to its theories, but does strongly suggest nasty snobbery from those eager to rubbish Shakespeare.

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