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Ten Word or Less Review – The director of Godzilla does Shakespeare.

Destroyer of the world!  Wrecker of the Earth!  The man who never saw a national monument he didn’t want to topple over in an orgy of CGI carnage!  Roland Emmerich is back!  And this time he’s bringing you Shakespeare!  Hamlet vs Aliens?  No.  The man who brought you city obliterating spaceships, the storm that froze our planet, the Earth’s crust that fell apart and a shitty Godzilla movie now feels obliged to spin an epic yarn about how politics and social decourum conspired to create Shakespeare, the world’s biggest literary fraud.  Anonymous tackles the less than substantiated claim that Shakespeare’s plays were in fact written by the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), here portrayed as a talented and tortured playwright caught in an age when to be such a thing was seen as pure sin.  In a certian light Emmerich seems like the right man for the job.  This is a dunderheaded conceit and Emmerich specializes in dunderheaded movies.  But he’s also monotonous, tone deaf and rarely any good with actors.  Most of these qualities eventually drag Anonymous into the muck from which it was spawned.

Anonymous begins by having renowned Shakespeare actor Derek Jacobi take the stage and begin to make the case for looking at Shakespeare with a crooked gaze.  He had an average education.  No examples of his handwriting exist.  But whatever thin possibilities this conspiracy hopes to exploit are gradually fallen to pieces in a plot rampant with silly twists, rampant incest, then eventually Emmerich’s favorite thing, explosions.  Anonymous quickly establishes that de Vere is a supremely talented artists who toils away in privacy, pumping out masterpieces in secret the way someone today fires off an e-mail to their mother.  With no outlet for his work he recruits playright Ben Johnson to act as his surrogate author.  Johnson hesitates to rise to the task and it’s here that the lecherous Shakespeare seizes his opportunity for financial gain and critical respect.  The film bounces back and forth between older Edward the tortured writer and a young Edward, wooer of Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave).  Their relationship is actually the emotional crux of the story.

Anonymous’ screenplay grasp at any straw it can to support its hairbrained theory.  Shakespeare himself is only a minor character portrayed as a morally abscent, opportunistic buffoon incapable of writing his own name, yet we’re supposed to believe he could keep this monumental secret until the day he died.  This is just one of many of Anonymous’ logic impaired claims.  As Edward de vere, Rhys Ifans nearly holds the story together as the repressed and spiritually sunken Earl.  His performance is full formed and totally convincing, free of any winking or coyness.  If there’s a joke a foot he’s not in on it.  But Emmerich’s tactless storytelling, and an over reaching and negligently researched screenplay, overpower him and his follow diligent co-stars.  The story deteriorates scene by scene into a balderdash costume drama.  Maybe that’s what Emmerich intended all along, but that’s giving him too much credit for guile.  No Emmerich film as ever felt the least bit cunning or intentionally deceptive.  It seems a confident assumption that he really was taking this seriously and if so he really should stick to destroying worlds with computer graphics.

If Emmerich’s entertainments have always kept you glued down, and you really don’t care how ridiculous this whole thing comes across, then perhaps his movie will prove a good lark for weekend viewing.  It has lurid drama and high court shenanigans at every turn.  Sex, deception and murder lurk behind all its corners.  But most likely the only thing breaking through yonder window will be exasperation followed by boredom.

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2 Comments

  1. It is really unfortunate that you would stoop to personal attacks on Roland Emmerich, one of the most prominent directors in the world and a man I am proud to be acquainted with. Both he and screenwriter John Orloff are men of the highest creativity and integrity who have had the courage to take on the Shakespeare industry whose purpose is only to stifle debate on this issue.

    You seem to base your knowledge on the claims of the entrenched academic orthodoxy that have, with some exceptions, refused to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves. Your “review” is simply an emotional rant that really makes me wonder if you have ever read a book on the life of Edward de Vere and the case for his authorship which in my view is not only strong. It is compelling.

    The film is a celebration of the magnificent plays and poems of perhaps the greatest writer in the English language. The film’s purpose is simply to set the record straight, to expose the mythology of the uneducated genius from Stratford, and give credit at long last to the true author. Emmerich has stated that his film provides one possible alternative explanation of the fact that we know next to nothing about the great Shakespeare, not the only explanation. The only issue here is not whether you like the idea that a nobleman wrote the works attributed to William of Stratford but whether it is true. The issue is not about class, but about evidence and I believe that the evidence clearly points to Edward de Vere as the true author.

    Emmerich is a strong supporter of the idea that the orthodox position is full of smoke and mirrors and does not describe the true author of the Shakespeare canon. Biographies of William of Stratford contain one page of fact and 599 of speculation such as “he might have”, “he could have”, it is probable that”, and so forth. There is nothing in his biography to connect him with the works.

    The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Nobody claims to having ever met the man. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else.

    The list of those who have doubted the Stratfordian attribution contain some of the most prominent authors, actors, and thinkers in American history including Henry and William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Mortimer Adler, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Supreme Court Justice Henry Blackmun, Harvard Professor William Y. Elliott, Clifton Fadiman, John Galsworthy, and many others.

    See http://doubtaboutwill.org.

    Composer Stephen Whitehead has offered the following assessment: “While the film bases many of its embellishments on facts known about Edward de Vere, the film does take a few rather implausible historical licenses, not unlike Amadeus which appeared about 25 years ago. Edward de Vere may have flirted with Queen Elizabeth when he was younger, but whether they bore a child does seem quite fantastic. Later in the film, an extraordinary truth about Oxford’s own heritage is revealed. However, films have to tell a story, and some licenses are made in order the story remain interesting and compelling. Shakespeare in many of his plays bent history to fulfill his dramatic goals and theatrical visions.

    Many Shakespeare enthusiasts not only dismiss the Oxfordian argument but do not approve of the subject altogether. Some Stratfordians’ view is that there is no “authorship question” and that any attempt to discredit the man from Stratford does a disservice to Shakespare. I think “Anonymous” is not so much about changing minds but about bringing the question out into the open. Regardless on which side of the fence you may be, there are a lot of questions concerning the life of Shakespeare. Answers to mundane questions, such as primary sources concerning his composing, are strangely absent. No one seems to have mentioned Stratford being any kind of a poet, playwright or actor in Stratford. However, as shown in the film, primary source evidence survives which speaks of Edward de Vere as an adolescent putting on a short play for the young Queen Elizabeth.”

  2. “It is really unfortunate that you would stoop to personal attacks on Roland Emmerich, one of the most prominent directors in the world and a man I am proud to be acquainted with.”

    My attacks on Mr. Emmerich are strictly professional, not personal. In person he may be a warm, generous, intelligent individual but I can only base my conclusions about the man based on what he puts on the screen. And what he has spent his career putting on screen has been one piece of unabashed nonsense after another. I firmly believe in the director as an artist and that a director’s body of work speaks something to the character, intelligence and integrity of the man who directs. By that measure Mr. Emmerich is an incredibly bad artist and someone I would have to assume has a distinct lack of character. The bulk of his career has consisted of knocking over buildings with CGI, having well paid actors gawk at the results then calling it a day. And if you define prominent as one who succeeds at obtaining great financial gain, then prominent he is. His films do make a load of cash as I’m sure he does as well. But I assure you, there are more than enough film critics besides little ol’ me who loath his bombastic, Irwin Allen inspired epics. I would say infamous is a better word to describe his directorial status. But should a good and well rounded fellow he be, fine. Great men routinely make awful movies. Give him my best and tell him I wish him good health.

    “You seem to base your knowledge on the claims of the entrenched academic orthodoxy that have, with some exceptions, refused to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves.”

    I refuse to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves? By story’s end Emmerich and Orloff have Edward de Vere screwing his own mother. Who in the room isn’t taking this seriously? How can Anonymous make me do anything but run towards ‘the entrenched academic orthodoxy’. It doesn’t even bother to sequence Shakespeare’s plays in correct chronological order. And turning Shakespeare himself into some opportunistic leech smells of dramatic wish fulfillment on their part. If the duo wanted me to truly consider their opinion, turning their story into a sequence of lurid events ripe with incest and absurdities was the wrong way to convince me.

    “The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Nobody claims to having ever met the man. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else.”

    Congrats. You made a sound, interesting argument for this theory far more convincing than anything in Mr. Emmerich’s silly movie but alas it all has the elements of most conspiracy theories. That being a great deal of supposing. Maybe no one can truly prove Shakespeare wrote the plays, but nor can any of the evidence you put forth disprove it either.

    At the end of the day it’s a nugget of historical pointlessness for people to wonder upon. In the end I don’t care who wrote Hamlet, all I care about is that someone did. It speaks to the power of the works that 500 years after they first appeared, we still watch and learn from them. But I seriously doubt anyone will pontificate the specifics and merit of Mr. Emmerich’s work, Anonymous included. His movies are crap now, and in 500 years they’ll still be crap.


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