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Anonymous (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Much Ado About Absolutely Nothing"
1 stars

Back in the Seventies, British filmmaker Ken Russell embarked upon a series of borderline insane pseudo-biopics on the lives of such cultural deities as Peter Tchaikovsky, Gustav Mahler, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and Rudolph Valentino that played so fast and loose with the historical record that one spent half the movie wondering how Russell managed to convince people into funding his audacious odysseys in the first place and the other half wondering how it was that he managed to get them made and released without the heirs of his subjects suing the pants off of him for slander, just for starters (unless, for example, Wagner really was reborn inside of a giant Nazi Frankenstein monster that slaughtered Jewish people with a machine gun guitar until finally stopped by a spaceship piloted by the pure spirit of Liszt). As scholarship, they were completely without merit but as admittedly crazed depictions of the artistic process, they were undeniably entertaining as long as one came to them with both a sense of humor and an appetite for cinematic excess. Therefore, when it was announced that Roland Emmerich, the auteur of such bombastic blockbusters as "Independence Day," "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012" was set to make a film in which he would essentially be calling out William Shakespeare as nothing more than an illiterate drunk who never wrote a single word of any of the plays or sonnets that bear his name--a move that, in terms of sheer cultural chutzpah, is akin to having Bob Dylan's authorship of his songs questioned by the likes of Lady Antebellum--I found myself strangely looking forward to what sheer insanity might result from such an unlikely combination of premise and filmmaker. And yet, the problem with "Anonymous"--once you factor out its bottomless stupidity and general disregard for the historical record, of course--is that it takes a premise that is simply ripe with potentially outrageous possibilities and somehow manages to transform it into a massive bore that is about as engrossing as the kind of dull high school English classes that invariably pits readers against the works of the Bard in the first place.

The film starts off portentously enough with none other than veteran Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi striding out onto a theater stage to solemnly announce that there is much doubt that Shakespeare any of the 37 plays or 154 sonnets that he is credited with--after all, he darkly intones, he only went to public school in the lesser environs of Stratford, was rumored to be illiterate and not a single manuscript of any of his creations written in his own hand has ever been found. Instead, the film posits that the works were actually the efforts of nobleman Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the seventeenth earl of Oxford. Ever since he was young, Edward has been possessed with a fever for creation but at that time, the theater was looked upon as being evil and degenerate and not the type of thing that someone of his position could be associated with without causing scandal. Nevertheless, Edward recognizes the power of theater to both comment on current events and sway public opinion and so he hits upon the idea of hiring someone else to take credit for his work. Initially, he approaches playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) with the idea but the writer initially demurs. Things come to a head after the tumultuous premiere of "Henry V" when the audience clamors to meet the unknown author and drunken actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) impulsively decides to claim that he is the author. Before long, Shakespeare becomes a star, his "plays" are smash hits and he is even able to have a grand theater built in order to perform them.

Inevitably, there is enough behind-the-scenes scandal, intrigue and betrayal to fuel an entire season at the Globe as a result of this deception. For starters, even though it was Jonson who gave Shakespeare the idea of taking credit by mentioning his discussion with da Vere, the newly crowned Bard grows enough of an ego to insist that none of Jonson's plays will ever be performed at his glorious Globe. Meanwhile, other playwrights become jealous of their colleague's incredible success and Christopher Bacon announces that he can prove that Shakespeare wrote nothing but comes to a mysterious and violent end before doing so. Back among the elite, Edward becomes aware of a plot by royal advisor William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his equally loathsome son, Robert (Edward Hogg), to usurp the throne of the now-aging Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave) by taking advantage of the fact that the so-called "Virgin Queen" has no immediate successors to speak of and despite Edward's longtime friendship with Elizabeth and her admiration for his artistic gifts, she finds herself relying on the Cecils to provide the power and influence that her shaky reign over the country is lacking. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that many years earlier, Elizabeth and Edward (played in their younger years by Joely Richardson and Jaime Campbell Bower) had a passionate affair that result in a child being secretly born out of wedlock and hidden from everyone, even Edward. Not only that. . .well, let's just say that if there had been such a thing as "Ye Olde Jerry Springer Showe" back in the day, Elizabeth and Edward could have filled up a week's worth of episodes all by themselves.

In essence, "Anonymous" plays like a lavishly appointed take on the highly speculative movies that Sunn Classics used to crank out back in the 1970's. For those of you who don't remember the studio or their output, they used to make pseudo-documentaries that would blow into town with huge publicity campaigns and make outlandish claims that they could prove that aliens did exist or that there was indeed life after death. Audiences flocked to them in droves but it was only after they dropped their hard-earned money that they discovered that the proof tended to be little more than a collection of half-truths and murky film footage that didn't prove a single thing. (Luck for the producers, this was in the pre-Internet days and by the time word began to spread that the films were scams, they had already moved on to the next town to begin the cycle anew.) Over the years, the idea that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays has been floating around in certain circles and the specific notion of Edward de Vere being the author has attracted the likes of Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and Helen Keller to name but a few. The main arguments that proponents of this theory use to prove their case is that there are incidents in some of the plays that loosely parallel events in his life and, more importantly, he had the type of superior breeding and education that was far more befitting of the creator of such important works. Of course, there are a number of minor holes in this theory, ranging from the fact that the public education that Shakespeare would have received would have been more than adequate to the inconvenient fact that many of de Vere's alleged works (including the likes of "Macbeth" and "King Lear") were first produced long after his death in 1604 to the fact that no manuscripts of the plays in de Vere's hand have ever been uncovered. Lacking any legitimate proof, the whole notion that de Vere wrote the plays is essentially the literary version of the birther movement with people in certain circles being so aghast at the notion of someone not of their class being capable of such achievements that they willingly grasp at the flimsiest imaginable straws in order to deny them that glory and reassign it to someone who is more worthy in their view.

Although "Anonymous" never really makes a conclusive case for its claim of de Vere's authorship and its numerous other factual inaccuracies (such as having Christopher Marlowe being mysteriously killed in 1598, about five years after his actual death) are enough to call all of its suppositions into question, those are not the reasons why it is such a spectacularly awful movie. Hell, Oliver Stone offered up plenty of equally bold and provocative ideas in "J.F.K." but in that film, he was at least clever enough to offer up an intriguing cinematic method for separating fact from speculation and he also had the decency to offer up his blend of fact and shiznit into a film that was absolutely spellbinding to watch. To be fair, I suppose that Emmerich deserves a little bit of credit for stepping so completely outside of his usual comfort zone in order to present a theoretically straightforward costume drama but it only takes a few minutes to discover that he has absolutely no aptitude for this type of material. Everything is staged in such an exaggeratedly stiff and formal manner--even the moments in which we are supposed to be reveling in the raucous atmosphere of the theater world of the time--that the whole thing takes on the look and feel of an exceptionally gauche waxworks. As strange as it may seem, the man who has cheerfully offered up such past sights as the White House being razed by UFO's, Madison Square Garden being trounced by Godzilla and much of the Earth being trashed by a presumably skewed reading of the Mayan calendar is nevertheless completely at thumbs with the notion of two or three people sitting in a room speaking in faux-formal dialogue. Say what you will about those previous efforts, at least things happened in them, which a hell of a lot more than can be said for what goes on here for two nearly interminable hours.

As the film plods on and on, Emmerich's ineptitude becomes so overwhelming that it beggars belief that nobody stepped in at some point early on in the proceedings to try to talk him out of what was shaping up to be certain disaster. He never finds the right tone to handle what has been handed to him (presumably via the longest pair of tongs imaginable) by screenwriterJohn Orloff; despite all of the story elements ranging from the lurid to the borderline insane, his take on the material is too ludicrous to work as serious historical drama and too flat-footed to work as a tongue-in-cheek travesty a la the aforementioned efforts by Ken Russell. The intertwining time schemes are bungled so badly that there are several places in which it will take even the most attentive viewers a few minutes to figure out what period the current scene is taking place in. The acting is largely awful--the woman are almost all nondescript while all the men seem to be involved in an especially intense round of Dueling Malkovichs--and the only significant exception, the only thing that saves the film from total uselessness, is the performance by Vanessa Redgrave as the elder Queen Elizabeth but that is less a testament to Emmerich's handling of actors than it is of her innate ability to take even the shabbiest material and make something out of it, even if only for a few minutes. (Ironically, she does virtually the same thing in the upcoming and exceptionally wobbly screen adaptation of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus.") He even manages to make the brief snippets that we see of the greatest hits of Shakespeare or whoever seem as dull and lifeless as the rest of the material--though these moments in which we are meant to be witnessing some of the most famous words ever written being heard publicly for the first time should be crackling with energy as they connect with their audiences, they are so limply handled that they are arguably the greatest disservice done to said words since I had to enact a scene from "Hamlet" in a college drama class to a response that could kindly be described as "tepid."

There are plenty of reasons to hate "Anonymous"--the low quality of the film itself, its ridiculous propagation of a dubiously constructed literary argument that has already been more or less thoroughly debunked and the fact that the producers are apparently supplying "study guides" to high schools and colleges that are supposedly designed to inspire critical thinking but which are actually nothing more than shameless promotions for the film (according to one website,the activities that it suggests to promote said thinking require that the students go out and see the movie first) being chief among them--but its biggest crime by far is that it is just one more example of the gradual dumbing-down of the world that we live in. After all, this is a time when scientific and historical facts can be ignored, upended or distorted by any dimwit with an ax to grind, a loud voice and access to the edit function on Wikipedia. Now the same thing is happening to Shakespeare and his works and the hell of it is that neither the film nor the other proponents of its theories seem to have much love or interest in the plays themselves--to them, it is more of a condescending argument that suggests that since the plays are such towering works of art, they could have only been written by a member of the privileged elite and certainly not by a denizen of the lower classes. Of course, what this argument fails to recognize is that the reason that the plays were so celebrated back in the day is because they were designed as entertainments first and foremost and only had the patina of artistic pretension thrust upon them once the academics got a hold of them. This is the reason why they have stood the test of time and why they will continue to be studied, performed and enjoyed for as long as humanity continues to exist, which is a hell of a lot more than one can say about the potential longevity of "Anonymous."

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21432&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/28/11 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/07/11 Fazon Sheriff Ifans is good, the setting is effective, but the execution is muddled. Underwhelming 2 stars
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  28-Oct-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 07-Feb-2012


  DVD: 07-Feb-2012

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