Posted by Nick Milne on November 2, 2011
[I've decided to eschew my usual film review format because this isn't really a review so much as it is a revilement. I do not think anyone should see Roland Emmerich's Anonymous (2011), of which the best that may be said is that it proves even an absurd fiasco can be boring. It's also been a while since I've reviewed any films at all, here, so falling back into the mode wouldn't exactly be as easy as one might hope.
Still, for the sake of consistency in the master list of reviews, consider this a 4/10.]
The field of allohistorical studies – that is, the examination of historical possibility as against historical fact – has long enjoyed the condemnation of the historical establishment. This has typically come from those members of that establishment most decidedly Marxist in tone; E.P. Thompson and E.H. Carr, for example, have both denounced such speculations as vain, even pernicious. The difficulty of predicting the alternate activities (or consequences thereof) of the masses, or the alternate reception or enactment of ideas, often sees allohistorical work focus instead upon the decisions or circumstances of an individual whose activities make or unmake whatever transpires. What if the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated? What if Lenin never returned to Russia in 1917? This makes Carlyle’s “Great Man” not only important but a site of contingency; no wonder the Marxists object.
A subfield of such speculation is that of the secret-history-as-alternate-explanation. Although this has a fine pedigree going back – at the very least – to the writings of Disraeli and Godwin in the 19th century, it has been given new life in the modern era by the rise of the “conspiracy theory,” at first as a subject of earnest investigation but eventually as a whole mode of entertainment and even living. In a field occupied almost exclusively by cranks, it should come as no surprise that onlookers might occasionally smile. Such theories, however, are the very least important, the least convincing, and the least justifiable – if seriously pursued – of all allohistorical endeavours. Seeing them delivered with sincerity provokes embarrassment rather than sympathy.
Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011) walks that line between entertainment and polemic, or at least carries itself with the sort of seriousness of a work that thinks it’s doing this. It would be more fair to say that it walks the line between farce and propaganda, and neither of these in their best senses. It takes an actual Great Man – William Shakespeare – who had no evident aspirations to the kind of social and political consequence with which Great Men are typically credited but achieved a great deal nevertheless, and functionally replaces him with another (though clandestine) Great Man – Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford – who had all of those aspirations and little actual impact. It is self-important where it should be humble, dull where it should be thrilling, long where it should be punchy, shabby where it should be extravagant, and – the ultimate failing – false where it should be true.
All of this, by way of caveat, is no surprise; Emmerich’s oeuvre seems to consist entirely of films that could be described in at least some of the terms above. This is not to say that they are wholly without merit. In a career of vasty missteps, Emmerich has at least consistently released films that are basically entertaining. The obnoxious, misplaced patriotism of Independence Day and The Patriot is easy enough to lose beneath the thrills the films deliver, while the sheer, all-destroying spectacle of something like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 commands one’s attention even while losing one’s respect. The most comparable predecessor to Anonymous in his catalogue is 10,000 BC, which was a failure on every possible level. In it he combined leaden acting, a misplaced sense of scale, a stupid thesis and a great deal of unjustifiable historical revisionism, coming out on the other side with one of the worst-reviewed movies of that year. Anonymous currently enjoys mixed acclaim, at worst, but history – somewhat appropriately – may take a more jaundiced view.
The film’s unceasing and humourless self-importance is its besetting sin. The proponents of the Oxfordian thesis are not known for their reticence, it is true, but revisionists everywhere must approach heavily-established “fact” with a great deal of caution and delicacy, even if they end up being correct. One does not flippantly unsettle the world. There’s a particular disingenuousness about the case of Anonymous, given how its producers have been acting. They’ve been situating the film as being one side in a “debate” – a debate in which no serious scholars of literature participate at all – and shipping documentaries in defense of this fact to school groups, dramatic companies and the like in a bid to bolster this perception. Like the gadflies of old, they’re simply asking questions; no need to get in a fuss about it. No need to overreact.
But the film itself is confident of its assertions to the point of brashness. Derek Jacobi literally lectures the audience about the “dark story” behind the fraudulent, illiterate glovemaker who was (or was he?!) William Shakespeare, and eulogizes De Vere as one might a sort of martyr. The entirety of the Oxfordian case is speculative. This is simply true. I am not exaggerating about this out of a sense of mere disagreement with it, to be clear: it is completely and consumately speculative. Presenting it as though it is not is irresponsible academically (and the producers have willingly forced themselves into the academic side of things) and disappointing artistically: real suspense is only created by leaving the audience in doubt.
All of this might have been tolerable if only the movie were more interesting. The Patriot is ahistorical bullshit of the first order, but it’s tremendously fun bullshit. The trailers for Anonymous made it seem as though it was going to be very much of a piece: an agenda-driven period drama that lovingly (if haphazardly) recreates the era on scales both intimate and modern. Instead we got lots of plotting – plotting, in fact, instead of plot. The film relies too heavily on the enormously byzantine political/relational maneuverings of a group of people of whom most audience members will not likely have heard. This might not matter in a purely fictional movie, but so much deference is here paid to “what really sort of happened” that there’s no room for the kind of invention that might actually make it interesting, or even justified.
The schemings of the lords and ladies of Westeros in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire intrigue readers in spite of their great and meticulous scope; the Council of Elrond in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring is earned by the urgency and excellence of the events surrounding it, and the affection borne by the readers towards the characters involved. We can put up with thirty pages of Gandalf and Frodo and so on talking; with forty of Varys and Littlefinger and Tyrion. Two hours of Lord Cecil and the Earl of Oxford is another thing entirely. Anonymous has the same sort of problem as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End had in terms of needlessly complex plotting and double-crosses, but Anonymous suffers in that nothing else of interest really happens (no mammoth ship battles or sword fights, for example) and what does happen is straight-jacketed by the necessities of a story that did not actually have to be told. (I say this in criticism mainly because the film has been promoted as an actiony thriller, to be clear; it is absolutely possible to make interesting movies about obscure people sedately talking about obscure things. Anonymous simply isn’t one of them.)
Anyway, these constraints are all the more keenly felt in a film that insists upon its own clear-eyed authenticity while resolutely failing to be authentic. Elizabethan London looks more computer-generated than I would have thought it would at a time before computers were invented, and the costumes are of the typical finery-with-dirt sort that tends to be found in productions purporting to convey a “gritty, realistic” depiction of the era in which they are set, whatever it may be. It has been suggested that this is a function of the movie’s narrative being “a play” itself, and as such burdened by the sort of production values that a play on a stage might have, but this is just a conceit rather than a reality. There was no reason to make this seem like a play at all apart from it giving Derek Jacobi an excuse to redo his master-of-ceremonies scenes from Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of Henry V – properly lauded by many as one of the better Shakespearean films ever produced – and for Emmerich’s film to borrow the the sort of second-hand prestige that such an evocation might bring. The pretentiousness of it carries through even to the end, with the audience to Jacobi’s dark tale meeting the drawing of the curtains with disquieted murmurs rather than the barely-stifled laughter of those in the actual cinema. It was a cheap grab at profundity; it did not convince.
That the Oxfordian thesis is almost certainly false should go without saying, and this is almost the least objectionable failing of the movie. Historical films are fairly drenched in falsehood from start to finish; it’s practically their defining feature. An essay from a medievalist scholar that I once read outlined something like 20 ridiculous historical errors and assumptions in the first two minutes of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (for example), while even films telling fairly simple stories about quite recent events – such as Tom Hooper’s The Damned United, concerning English football in the 1970s – contain seemingly arbitrary alterations of the historical record in scene after scene.
Anonymous is altogether too concerned with its own urgent truthfulness for such allowances to be made, however. Whereas something like Shakespeare in Love or the recent adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys’ play The Libertine merely wishes to tell an interesting story using familiar faces, Anonymous seeks to upheave everything we thought we knew about etc. Corners simply cannot be cut in such a case.
The backdrop on a playhouse stage will never be entirely accurate; at best it can suggest the city or the forest in which the scene is laid. This is perfectly fine, though, as we are only meant to take it as a suggestion in the first place. Athens didn’t really look quite like that, and the woods around it would probably have had different sorts of trees, but the objects of our attention are the people moving about in front of them: Lysander and Hermia, Bottom and Titania. They are what we’ve come to see.
Anonymous is all backdrop and no play.
The troubles that beset it are many and odd, though, and exist on different scales. On the low end (and as my always attentive roommate pointed out), a bear featured in a thematically significant bear-baiting scene was a Grizzly – not likely to appear in Elizabethan England. On the high end, things get far worse. The playwright Christopher Marlowe is slandered and impugned, pictured doing treacherous and awful things to abet the plot; in fact he was dead before the events described in the film even began to take place. De Vere’s hectoring, puritanical wife – coincidentally the daughter/sister of his main antagonists – plays an important and supremely negative role in his later years as depicted, and seemingly tries to help have his final manuscripts tracked down and destroyed, whatever the price; she too was dead by this point, and long since replaced by a second wife of a much milder spirit. The film’s insistence upon dubious matters – De Vere’s descent from/romance with Elizabeth I, the plays as coded calls for a rebellion of sorts, and so on – belong here too, but are too numerous to be listed and are pretty obvious anyway.
In an interview on NPR, Anonymous‘s screenwriter John Orloff (a committed Oxfordian) was asked about such inaccuracies as the Marlowe/Anne Cecil problems noted above. His response was this:
Orloff points out that Shakespeare himself collapsed time in his history plays.
“Real life doesn’t unfold in three acts,” he says [My note: Shakespeare's plays didn't either; he is notable for his consistent use of a five-act structure], “but a movie has to.”
And in any case, Orloff says, he’s less interested in the authorship question than in a bigger exploration.
“At the end of the day, what we’re really doing is having a question about art and politics and the process of creativity,” Orloff says. “And that’s what the movie is about. It’s not about who wrote these plays; it’s about how does art survive and exist in our society.“
The part I’ve emphasized at the end there is an absolute lie, and the bit that comes just before it isn’t much better. What is the question to which he alludes? To what possible “question about art and politics and the process of creativity” could a film like this be the answer?
This incoherence about just what the film is actually meant to be doing is ultimately what neuters it as a threat to established wisdom. My colleagues and I went to see it mainly on the strength of the risk it might pose to our undergraduate wards, but I cannot easily imagine anyone being converted by Anonymous – or even seriously provoked.
Anonymous is marketed as a thriller, yet is not thrilling in the least; it is touted as a shocking revelation of the truth, yet drapes itself in deliberate and completely unnecessary falsehood; it is cloaked in the assurance that it’s simply presenting one side of a dispute, yet is so completely in the bag for that side that the other may as well not even exist; its director promotes it as a blast of the trumpet against the Stratfordian consensus, yet its writer insists it’s about nothing of the sort.
What a piece of work.