Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Soul of the Age, The Amadeus of the Stage: A review of the movie ANONYMOUS

In brief: See this movie. Anonymous is, first and foremost, a ripping good yarn. It also represents the biggest media event in the history of the Oxfordian story and perhaps the whole Shakespeare authorship question. Over the coming months and years, millions of people around the world who know nothing about Edward de Vere and his relationship to the "Shakespeare" canon will be witnessing the entire Elizabethan and Oxfordian world that Anonymous has fascinatingly and carefully created -- historical liberties and all. Some critics will undoubtedly knock Anonymous's departures from documented fact, even setting the Shakespeare authorship issue aside. But such criticism, in this reviewer's opinion, misses the point of the fictionalizing: The dramatic license the movie wields all arguably helps it tell a powerful and gripping story to as wide a global audience of moviegoers as possible. This is, on balance, a very good thing.

Review: Roland Emmerich's forthcoming Oxfordian biopic Anonymous (Columbia Pictures, US & UK release Oct. 28, elsewhere here) is a revolution in a 16:9 frame. Fittingly, the story prominently features its own uprising.

An enraged mob has just seen a performance of the Shakespeare play Richard III. Incited by the play's allegorical depiction of the crook-backed Elizabethan Machiavel Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), they're ready to smash and burn. The playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) sees a trap, though, and he tries to stop the masses from running headlong into it. 

However, as the "Essex Rebellion" actually played out 410 years ago, it was preceded by a performance of the Shakespeare play Richard II -- a knottier drama whose relationship to the rebellion turns on less immediately accessible points, concerning a scene depicting the deposition of an English monarch. And while we're nitpicking, Jonson wasn't part of the marauding hordes either. 

Yet the success of Anonymous is that even those who know the historical facts with which the movie takes its liberties aren't given much time to care. It's a wild and entertaining ride. The intrigue and literary double-dealing sweeps the viewer up into a shadowy world all its own. The actor Shakespeare, as the film portrays him, is an ale-hoisting codpiece who fronts as the author of plays written behind the scenes by an Elizabethan court playwright who is no stranger to readers of this blog, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. 

The depiction of de Vere blending into his Shakespearean milieu -- from authorship of plays and poems to courtly performances to outdoor public theaters -- is a revelatory and sometimes shocking experience. Even for an Oxfordian viewer.

Those who make a hobby or (part-time) profession professing the case for de Vere as "Shakespeare" nevertheless live in a hostile Stratfordian world, forever defending ourselves from critical brickbats. We rarely if ever get, even in our minds' eyes, to inhabit these worlds. But Anonymous exerts every effort to ensure that for two hours and ten minutes, we do. And, thanks to a painstaking work of filmmaking, we really do.

The immersion comes not just from the lavish production design and photorealistic and nearly ubiquitous CGI digital backdrops. (The computer generated imagery in fact fits so comfortably and seamlessly into the scenes and settings that it actually fooled Variety's reviewer into claiming Anonymous is "nearly CGI-free.")

A few performances -- in particular the mother-daughter team of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson as the elder and younger Queen Elizabeth -- entice the viewer like a siren to join the film's Oxfordian universe.

And Rhys Ifans's quiet and measured turn as the mature Edward de Vere reverses nearly a century of academic slander against his character by flashing the fire and shaking the spears that Oxfordians have long said makes him such a compelling and convincing "Shakespeare." Ironically, Ifans' knowing glances, each themselves concealing volumes, will probably reach more eyes than the whole output of books and articles in the long history of the authorship question. 

At a public Q&A with Emmerich recently, Columbia University professor James Shapiro (Contested Will) tried to smear Emmerich with insinuations of Nazism -- a vile slander that provided a case-in-point of the desperation and intellectual bankruptcy that marks most Stratfordian rearguard actions today. 

Orthodox Shakespeare scholars -- those whose reputations and careers rely on Shakspere of Stratford claiming exclusive right to the "Shakespeare" canon --  have good reason to be worried. The comparable arrow in their quiver, Shakespeare in Love, is an empty vessel compared to the heady draught of thriller, romance and epic literary biography that Anonymous serves up.

That Anonymous surpasses Shakespeare in Love, incidentally, is actually no trivial statement from this reviewer. I am one Oxfordian who enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, especially for its own witty and carefully crafted depiction of the period. But Shakespeare in Love was -- like Stratfordian best-selling books Will in the World or 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare -- entertaining ultimately only for its backdrops and bit players. None of these stitch jobs had a living, approachable, comprehensible, and fallible human soul at its core.

Anonymous, on the other hand, delivers just that. It makes the kind of immediate and visceral human connection to its protagonist that good movie performances can forge. 

So it is that unallied Shakespeare scholars and fans of all callings (i.e. who hold no vested interest in the authorship question) should be thrilled at the attention to the Bard that Anonymous will inevitably bring. Those outside the Oxfordian/Stratfordian trenches in the authorship wars -- which is to say 99% of film's audience -- will find in Anonymous a sexy thriller that also cleverly welcomes millions of new eyes to the Shakespeare canon.

The Bard really does win the day in Anonymous, although admittedly Shakspere of Stratford hardly comes out smelling like beauty's rose. 

Rafe Spall as Shakspere is one of the film's two broad, comic performances. (The other is James Clyde, as a slightly queeny King James.) Spall's Shakspere is a sodden clown given to excesses that might befit an Elizabethan fraternity boy. One can sense from behind the lens the risk-taking Emmerich (whose own canon often joys in the extremes it can stage and provoke) helping to push the Shakspere character and performance to the hilt. And maybe that's just the sort of shock to the system the authorship debate needs. Bardolatrous admirers would certainly demand just the opposite, seeking an appropriate measure and respect befitting the Soul of the Age. 

But that role -- and that die -- has already been cast. 

In publicity events over the past month, Emmerich has appealed to the tradition of such classic fictionalized film biographies as Milos Forman's Amadeus. Emmerich has pointed out that in historical fact, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's relationship with the film's supporting character Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) involved less-to-none of the melodrama, back-biting and poisonous rivalry depicted in Forman's masterpiece. 

Emmerich is wise to cite Amadeus as inspiration and precedent. Because like Amadeus heralds one of history's greatest geniuses as an often buffoonish clown, Anonymous's plot equally provocatively deflates the Stratfordian bubble. 

Although wit is one realm where de Vere was reputedly the undisputed king -- not unlike Mozart, equally bawdy as precociously brilliant. And de Vere's wit feels most wanting in Anonymous's necessarily trimmed-to-feature-length depiction of the very serious Elizabethan succession question that forms the centerpiece of the film. 

This, in turn, raises the movie's other great deflated myth -- Gloriana, the Virgin Queen.  

"Prince Tudor" theories have either been, depending on whom one asks, the apotheosis or the bête noire of the Oxfordian movement -- postulating that Edward de Vere and/or Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton were secret royal offspring of Elizabeth herself.

For months, Oxfordian blogs including this one have wondered how Anonymous will treat "PT," as the Oxfordian heresy-within-the-heresy is often abbreviated.

In particular, a film that portrays the combination-platter PT theory, in which de Vere is both (ahem) Wriothesley's father and brother, would be horrific PR for Oxfordians. Stratfordians give us a hard enough time just for advocating the basic Oxfordian story. Picture a movie that portrays with equal levels of claimed realism that Queen Elizabeth had committed incest with her own son: This would be a nightmare.

Anonymous, however, is no such movie.

Instead, screenwriter John Orloff (with whom this blog will feature a three-part interview during Anonymous's opening week) handles "PT" with the political moxie the subject demands. Without delving into spoilers, I can only say that in this reviewer's opinion, someone hostile to the "PT" theory could still see Anonymous and have a great time with the film.

For my own part, I enjoyed Anonymous tremendously, and I have at least some degree of sympathy for the "anti-PT" camp. (I hasten to add, though, that I also find "anti-PT" tactics to be questionable at times. Personally, concerning PT, I'm in a sort of halfway state that is neither and both. As a plug, I'll be sharing my own thoughts on the PT theories in the keynote address to the Shakespeare Oxford Society/Shakespeare Fellowship joint conference in Washington, D.C. next weekend, on Sat., Oct. 15.)

Anonymous, in other words, makes no effort to persuade you that Elizabeth had children. It's just part of the movie's courtly realpolitik. And the incest question instead becomes a question of the believability of an unreliable witness who has clear motives to lie about Oxford's parentage. (Oxford himself, in a moving deathbed scene, doesn't in the end believe he's Elizabeth's son either. He clearly prides himself in the long and storied de Vere bloodline to which he belongs.)

So, in all, Anonymous is about as welcome an introduction to the mainstream as Oxfordians could ask for.

Yes, it might be nice to have a fictional feature film that doesn't take liberties with historical fact and instead presents the basic Oxfordian theory as the only departure from orthodox history books. I suspect, though, such a movie would not be very successful. Or for that matter very entertaining.

Take it from someone who knows: Getting de Vere's epic story into 600 pages is challenging enough as it is. I can only imagine that condensing the whole thing into a self-contained and immediately-accessible two hour package would require some concatenation of seemingly unrelated storylines and a little unknotting of various tangled webs.

Kudos to Roland Emmerich, John Orloff and to the cast and crew that have opened the door wide for Oxfordians to tell our story. Here's to Anonymous enjoying every success at the box office and beyond.

Because the more it engages viewers across the planet, the more opportunities it will open up for Oxfordians in the years ahead. Anonymous ultimately poses questions. It is up to Oxfordians to provide, as best we can, our many volumes and many variations on the answers.

Dislcaimer: This author and "Shakespeare" By Another Name had nothing to do with the making of Anonymous.
Images (c) 2011 Columbia Pictures
Thanks to Gerit Quealy for securing the tickets that enabled this review! 


ordaj said...

Can. Not. Wait. to see the movie. Thanks, Roland.

William Ray said...

The movie may be a B-movie, but the Shakespeare establishment gets an F for English and History. I felt a boost just because the artistic wing of our (European-American) culture had enough integrity to jump in and try to get it right. High marks on that honorable intention.

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. said...

Great review, Mark-- you've achieved balance on a controversial and sometimes polarizing topic. About that "99% of the audience"-- I realize you're referring to those who are actively researching the question. Still, it's heartening to know that, as of October 10, 2011, The Telegraph's poll of its readers showed only 71% of them agree with the legendary authorship theory. After I discussed the BBC film version of The Tempest at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association last June, the moderator polled the audience's opinions on authorship. The majority voted for de Vere. Others were undecided. But the legendary author received not a single vote!

Ted Alexander said...

Thanks Roland for an awesomely entertaining movie and thanks Mark for a terrific review. And thanks to John Orloff for starting all this and writing a great screenplay. Looking forward to reading Mark's interview with Mr.Orloff.

Tom Goff said...

Sounds like a most enjoyable movie, marking an epoch in reconceiving Shakespeare,along with the mighty books (SBAN and others) on which it draws!

Anka said...

Just reading this review was a thrill! I can't imagine what's in store for those of us who have waited for this moment for oh, so many years... My thanks to Roland, John and Mark.

Donald mw said...

What a marvelous review, Mark. You definitely see the macro-vision prospects for future film endeavors once the Iron Curtain of Shakespeare Orthodoxy has been breached. With your fine tome, Hank's Monument, Charles' latest book, and the Chiljan masterpiece, we are on the verge of a sea-change on the authorship question. Thank you,Thank you so much for your great work.

Anonymous said...

I indeed hope it is as interesting and well developed as you say and I think that is likely no small credit to John Orloff's writing as you might likely agree. By the way for those interested I've posted a photo comparison that might be of interest to those who have little regard for the underlying premise of this film. Or at least one important part of the premise. The notion of Southampton's relation to Elizabeth.

Vardhanam Daga said...

Shakespeare lives in our memories through his beautiful works. I couldn't care less, if that the guy who wrote masterpieces like Julius Caesar, King Lear, Othello was a grammar school graduate or some highly educated earl.
I mean, why is there such a fuss about who was the real Shakespeare and about setting the History right. Isn't history itself a concoction of several narratives and ideals? Isn't history a lie?