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Film review: Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

(NOTE: This review first appeared in the winter 2011 edition of Around the Globe. I’m including it here as an addendum to my novel, So Long, Shakespeare.)

Alternative theories regarding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays have a fundamental affinity with high-concept Hollywood blockbusters: both can be pitched in a single sentence – ‘Jaws in space’ for Alien; ‘Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays’ for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous – after which, the rest pretty much writes itself. You might have to bandage over the odd plot hole, tweak any awkward historical facts, and pace things judiciously to suspend audience disbelief, but, in the spirit of Dr. Johnson’s critique of Gulliver’s Travels, ‘once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest’.

Yet while Anonymous, coming from the director of Godzilla and Independence Day, is a natural successor to its Oscar-laden forebear, Shakespeare in Love, the film’s appearance also chimes with the recent intensification of the authorship debate. Democratised by the internet, authenticated by two dedicated university courses, and advocated by knowledgeable, high-profile adherents, the controversy has been energised like never before. In this context, Anonymous represents a pivotal moment, dreamt of by some, dreaded by others: an unprecedented opportunity for the issue to leap into the mainstream, possibly even the classroom.

If that sounds overstated, the reaction of the Shakespeare establishment suggests otherwise. Many scholars have traditionally held their tongues on the authorship issue – to defend Shakespeare is to doubt Shakespeare – but the release of Anonymous, and mischievous promotional stunts like the distribution of an educational pack on the subject to US schools, has proved a call to arms. The battle is on for the hearts and minds of the masses.

Spearheading the Shakespearian fightback has been the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, fronted by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Their brutal campaign began on 1st September, two months before the film’s release, and unfolded on several fronts. First came a web conference in which sixty luminaries (including the Prince of Wales, Stephen Fry and Roland Emmerich) responded to the film’s tagline ‘Was Shakespeare a Fraud?’. This was followed by an online seminar, e-book and several articles (including one in these pages) refuting the claims of anti-Shakespearians, with a myth-busting essay anthology from Cambridge University Press to follow in 2013. There was even a slightly counter-intuitive prank, just before the film’s release, involving the covering-up of Shakespeare’s name on pub and road signs.

It has been a passionate defence, but what of its impact? Well, media coverage of the film has been rampant, and the Trust’s pre-emptive strike – stealing a march on the enemy in order to shape the tone of reporting – seems to have paid dividends. A quick trawl through Stuart Ian Burns’ excellent @shakespearelogs Twitter aggregator confirms that the majority of mainstream opinion pieces have rejected Emmerich’s historical meddling, while also throwing up little gems like the story of the students who gathered outside a Pasadena cinema to defend Shakespeare’s honour. By contrast, most anti-Shakespearian coverage has emanated from those associated with the film – typically Emmerich himself, Rhys Ifans (who portrays the Earl of Oxford), and screenwriter John Orloff – or dyed-in-the-wool anti-Shakespearians, defending themselves in the comments below pro-Shakespeare web articles.

The saga is, of course, far from over – there’s still the Blu-Ray to come, and Mark Rylance is promising an in-kind riposte to the SBT’s web conference – but Anonymous feels unlikely to prompt a mass defection to the sceptics, and may even reinforce popular sympathy for Shakespeare’s claim. This impression is strengthened by the film faltering on release, with Sony stemming back its American distribution after poorly-received previews, and takings on both sides of the Atlantic well below par. The latter will doubtless prompt rejoicing at the SBT, even if nothing quite undermines the anti-Shakespeare cause as effectively as the film itself.

Beautifully designed, with sumptuous costumes, sets, and tremendous ‘money shots’ of Elizabethan London, Emmerich’s well-acted, potentially entertaining tale of convoluted court intrigue is hamstrung, simply and fatally, by having to make sense of the Oxfordian theory – a flight of high-concept fancy which proves that not all such stories unfurl as easily as Gulliver’s Travels, or indeed the far fleeter-footed Shakespeare in Love. The film does its valiant best, with a fractured chronology, steady drip of far-fetched revelations, and dutiful ticking-off of motivations for every character, but the illusion doesn’t last beyond the end credits. The house of cards imploded as I walked away, drawing attention to the very improbability of the premise. I emerged thinking it would be fun to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays but, even as I fantasised, I felt ever more certain that he didn’t.

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