Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Quick Review of Anonymous

Anonymous. Dir. Edward D. Wood, Jr. Perf. David Hasselhoff, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mark Wahlberg, Lindsay Lohan, and Willem Dafoe. 2011.  DVD.  Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2012.

After several years and many attempts, I finally found enough time and a hearty-enough constitution to watch Anonymous. In the interest of accuracy (unlike the film itself), I'll reveal that I watched it in several sections over about a week's time, occasionally watching it at three times the speed with the subtitles on, frequently grading papers as I did so.

The film is awful in all sorts of ways. For the ways in which the plot is ludicrous—both historically and logically—I point you toward Holger Syme's take on the film. In addition to that, the acting is bad, the writing is worse, and the editing frequently makes very little sense.

I don't imagine it comes as a surprise to any of Bardfilm's readers, but I was utterly appalled by the film. Here are a few of the more notable things this film asks us to believe:
  • Elizabeth I goes on progress in order to give birth to illegitimate children (one of whom is fathered by a former illegitimate child of Elizabeth's). Every time the Virgin Queen gets pregnant, they have to go on progress, have the baby, and then shuffle off the little mortal coil to some noble willing to raise it. According to Mary Cole's The Portable Queen, Elizabeth went on twenty-three progresses during her reign. The math suggests that Elizabeth was certainly doing her part to increase the stock of heirs to the throne of England by at least (there could have been twins!) twenty-three. Note: Thanks to @commish24 and @historyadjunct for their help in suggesting this source and passing along its information.

  • The Earl of Oxford has a stockpile of a dozen or so plays that he suddenly decides to release to the world. It's always good to be prepared with a Brilliant Drama Slush Fund.

  • William Shakespeare is too idiotic to be taken seriously as an actor, but everyone swallows the idea that he's a playwright—make that the playwright—without any question. He's also completely ignorant—except when it comes to extorsion and theatre business, which he manages quite nicely.

  • Elizabethans hate hunchbacks. Therefore, they hate Robert Cecil. The Earl of Oxford decided to give the Richard III of his eponymous play a hunch in order to mock Robert Cecil. That was the first time anyone ever said anything about Richard III having a hunch.

  • Christopher Marlowe was murdered by William Shakespeare because he suspected that Shakespeare might not be the author of the plays. 

  • Writing anything in iambic pentameter is inordinately impressive to everyone—even other playwrights.
I've pulled a seven-minute clip out of the middle of the film to give you all an idea of what goes on in the film. The clip starts with Ben Jonson and the Earl of Oxford (seated in separate parts of the theatre) watching Henry V. The actual Shakespeare in that scene isn't all that bad—which just goes to show that you can't kill Shakespeare's words, no matter how hard you try. We then see Oxford overcome with the power of his own words to move the many headed. Then William Shakespeare seizes an opportunity to claim authorship of the play when the crowd begins chanting "Playwright!  Playwright!" (with, perhaps, some homage to Doctor Who there). Shakespeare makes a speech worthy of an Academy Award winner. Then Oxford chews Jonson out for letting Shakespeare claim authorship. But he browses through his collection of genius plays to find one that's suitable anyway. When Oxford tells him that it's in iambic pentameter, Jonson asks, with great incredulity, "All of it?  Is that possible?" Jonson then exits, leaving the Earl of Oxford to practice his new pseudonym's signature. Take a gander:


There are innumerable blurbs for Anonymous scattered around the Internet. By way of conclusion, I've collated a few of the more notable ones here:
"Remember when Regan and Cornwall gouged my eyes out? This was worse."

"This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard."

"Eww, that's disgusting. She's old enough to be his mother! Oh, that's right.  She is his mother."

"I had never seen this film before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous film that ever I saw in my life."
                                  —Samuel Pepys

"Well, I'll admit it.  As slurs on my character go, this tops Ben Jonson's 'Not Without Mustard' joke!"
                                  —William Shakespeare

"Never, never, never, never, never."
                                  —King Lear

"O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!"

"I rather liked it."

". . . of course, sometimes they are just plain bad."

Works Cited

Cole, Mary Hill.  The Portable Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Ceremony. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Links: The Film at IMDB.


Anonymous said...

Ben Jonson

Howard Schumann said...

An example of a more open-minded review by Lisa Pease, Intriguing Shakespeare Author Mystery

“The film Anonymous deals with a longstanding debate many people have never heard about: the question of who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. While the answer seems obvious, numerous scholars have concluded the answer is anything but.

Some of the many notables who have challenged the notion that the barely educated Shakespeare wrote those brilliant works, filled with literary and cultural allusions, include Sigmund Freud, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Charlie Chaplin, Orson Wells, famed Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi, Malcolm X, Helen Keller, James Joyce, and Lewis Lapham among others.

Some of the issues raised include these: Shakespeare’s plays display a vast and in-depth array of learning that his grade-school education could not have provided. Fourteen of Shakespeare’s plays take place in Italy, but William Shakespeare never went to Italy. Most of his plays deal with the intrigues of the nobles, but Shakespeare was a commoner.

In addition, not a single document has ever surfaced written in Shakespeare’s own hand, an oddity shared only by his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who some have speculated wrote Shakespeare’s plays after faking his own death. Yet numerous handwriting samples exist for many of their lesser-known contemporaries.

Although the film is graced with the talented Rhys Ifands as Edward de Vere, Vanessa Redgrave as the so-called “Virgin Queen” and Edward Hogg as the Queen’s trusted advisor Robert Cecil, among others, the real star of this film is the story.

Billed as a “political thriller,” it’s an adventure in alternative history one won’t soon forget. Check your skepticism at the door, and open your mind to a fascinating tale of Shakespearean proportions.”

kj said...

Hello, Howard. Welcome back!

I really did try to have something of an open mind about the film as a film (though the arguments on which the film is based are so poorly-constructed that any "open" mind is forced to close when faced with its inaccuracies and illogic). But it's bad as a film. It's simply not pleasing or well-acted or interesting. The film currently has a 47% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, so it's not just Shakespeare scholars who find it to be a bad film.

I also have a few quibbles with the review you quote. Note that it begins by saying "numerous scholars have concluded the answer is anything but," which is misleading. Very few scholars actually hold that position. The recent Shakespeare Beyond Doubt examines that notion and came up with a very small number of scholars who actually fit that category. I don't have the book with me to refer to the exact number, but I know it was under a dozen.

The next paragraph goes on to list "notables" rather than scholars, attempting to make us think that these people have an authoritative position to make claims about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. And it also lists Orson Wells [sic], not only misspelling his name but also attributing beliefs to him that he did not have. Orson Welles was not an Oxfordian.

Finally, I just want to note the lack of logic in the claim "Fourteen of Shakespeare’s plays take place in Italy, but William Shakespeare never went to Italy." Four of Shakespeare's plays are set in Ancient Rome, but Shakespeare never went to Ancient Rome. One of Shakespeare's plays takes place in Scotland—but we have no evidence that Shakespeare ever went to Scotland. The list can go on: one on a Mediterranean isle, four in Greece, one in Denmark, one (partly) on Cyprus, one (partly) in Bohemia, et cetera. The argument just doesn't hold water. If it did, then the Earl of Oxford couldn't have written any of the plays that take place out of England, France, or Italy.

Thanks for pointing toward this review--but, even when I "check [my] skepticism at the door," the film isn't enjoyable.


M. said...

I actually love "Anonymous", I have to admit. Yes, it's probably guilty pleasure as every single one of Roland Emmerich's movies is, but that's exactly what I love about them. I mean, they are so outragous (The Day After Tomorrow, anyone? And 2012! Ha!), that the fun lies really in big pictures and no credibility at all. In Independence Day the world is threatened by Aliens, for god's sake. What can I say? Awesome! :-D

As for Anonymous: I have two main complaints with this film. First and foremost there are too many leaps in time - it makes the storyline somewhat confusing and confusing is the least thing you should go for in popcorn cinema. My second complaint is the way this was promoted - more like an earnest investigation of the Authorship question than what it really is: popcorn cinema's approach to Shakespeare conspiracy theories and a chance to make a film about rioting London masses and some incest. Of course there are some other things I would have changed (from a filmmaker's point of view) and the script itself had it's problems, etc. but those are comparatively minor.

Having said that, I actually found Rhys Ifan's performance as Earl of Oxford rather good. I think he kind of carried the movie, without him it would have been a lot worse.

kj said...

Thanks for the comment, M.

I really did try to watch this with an open mind to its filmic content rather than its argument, but I found that part to be quite dull.

In terms of enjoying this like, say, Independence Day, the difference lies in this film's desire to have itself taken utterly seriously. When Independence Day came out, I'm fairly sure there wasn't any attempt to get schools across the nation to start discussing the question of alien invasion. The film's inability to take itself lightly make it almost entirely unwatchable.

Take care!


Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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