(directed by Roland Emmerich, 2011)
One of my friends keeps saying that I should read Jasper Fforde‘s books, which are set in a world where people riot over the question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays (he clearly thinks I’d have sympathy with such a cause). As such, how could I resist Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous? In retrospect, I really wish I had resisted it. But that is part of the purpose of this blog. I am here to suffer really, really silly film-making so that you don’t have to. Think of it as a noble sacrifice.
Let me state my position, before we wade into the mire. I see no reason to doubt that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Shakespeare. I dislike conspiracy theories as a matter of principle. But I understand that there are a lot of intelligent people out there who believe there’s a strong case to be made for someone else having written Shakespeare. I’m interested to hear their arguments, less because I think I’ll be convinced, than because I value the chance to consider both sides of a reasoned debate. Now, before we tug up the galoshes and splash into the swamp, let me warn you: there are spoilers ahead.
Anonymous masquerades as a groundbreaking manifesto for the Earl of Oxford’s authorship. It isn’t. Not willing to settle with one fairly major conspiracy theory, Emmerich goes to absurd extremes. In making the plot so ridiculous, he removes credibility from every aspect of it. The arguments for Oxford’s authorship, which have been staunchly maintained by many serious people, come across as no more than another bizarre sub-plot. I have to admit that I lost faith in the film during the scene where A Midsummer Night’s Dream is revealed to have been written by a practically pubescent Oxford. Do even Oxford’s most fervent supporters accept that (what looked like) a fourteen-year-old would be capable of writing such a play?
Let’s review the other historical revelations that Emmerich asks us to accept during the course of the film. He wishes us to believe that Elizabeth I was not the Virgin Queen and in fact enjoyed the odd romp with her courtiers. This theory has been done before, and better; and I see no reason why there shouldn’t be a grain of truth in it. However, Emmerich turns her affections from the usual suspects of Leicester and Essex to Oxford. Again, maybe there’s some truth in that. I don’t remember having read about it, but I could be wrong. Then Emmerich tells us that Elizabeth has not only been round the block a few times, but has also given birth to several illegitimate children, who’ve been conveniently farmed off to noble families by the Cecils. At this point, I thought how fortunate it was that all these noble families happened not to have sons of their own, and were able to unquestioningly take in the foundlings that the Cecils foisted upon them.
One of these ‘foundlings’ was none other than the son of Elizabeth and Oxford. And who should that foundling grow up to be? Why, none other than the Earl of Southampton, generally supposed to be Shakespeare’s patron and, very probably to my mind, the fair youth of the Sonnets. So Emmerich would have us believe that Oxford was writing these impassioned sonnets to his own son? Well, perhaps… That might be plausible in the sense of the exhortations to the young man to get married and carry on the family line, although some of the sentiments hardly sound paternal. However, the final ‘revelation’ was completely off-the-wall… Robert Cecil smugly tells Oxford that he, Oxford, was in fact the first of Elizabeth’s bastards, conceived and born when she was only sixteen, and fostered off with John de Vere, Earl of Oxford. The Earl of Southampton was therefore born of unwitting incest between the queen and her eldest son!
Does any serious academic actually believe this? Did I miss a whole module during my history degree? God bless the man sitting across the aisle from me who, as the lights slowly came up, said to his wife, ‘Well, that was bollocks.’ My question is: why? Why not focus on the main plot-line, about the plays of Shakespeare? Why not focus on making the most logical and compelling case for Oxford’s authorship, rather than throwing in daft sub-plots about incest and illegitimacy which only serve to weaken the overall conviction of the storyline?
I find it very hard to believe that, if Elizabeth I had borne illegitimate children, she would have let the Cecils foster them off without knowing exactly where and with whom they were being placed. This was a woman who was so determined to keep control of the reins that ultimately she couldn’t bear the thought of marriage, through which she might lose control to a husband. (Unless you believe she was gay, or a man in disguise, or too busy writing Shakespeare’s plays to bother with dating.) Is it plausible that she wouldn’t have known exactly who was who? Or that she wouldn’t have found it suspicious that those noble couples who’d had trouble conceiving happened to turn up with children the same age as her own? It’s ironic, really. I was all prepared to get angry about this film, but I thought I’d be angry about the question of attribution. I wasn’t ready for Emmerich to try to rewrite Tudor history as well as literary history.
I do wonder why so many respectable actors became involved with such a lot of nonsense (money, I suppose). And I wonder what the film could have been if the storyline hadn’t been so bizarre, because the whole thing looks very good. There are sweeping bird’s-eye views of Elizabethan London, stirring theatre scenes and good-quality costumes. Admittedly the quality of the acting varies. The best performances came from Rhys Ifans, whose older Oxford was grave, elegant and subtle, and Joely Richardson, as a young and rather naughty Elizabeth I. While Vanessa Redgrave can do little wrong, in my opinion, I thought she over-played her older Elizabeth (a clever mother-daughter bit of casting), sometimes veering into grotesque caricature.
The other actors were given rather two-dimensional roles, which they all managed capably but without much fizz: Sebastian Armesto’s role as Ben Jonson required little more than that he look troubled and downtrodden, which he managed with aplomb, and Rafe Spall’s Shakespeare was a maddening buffoon. Jamie Campbell-Bower looked attractive as the younger Earl of Oxford, but gave little sense of the complex levels of a man who (as the film would have it) wrote such divine verse. It’s perhaps symptomatic of the film’s flaws that I spent much of the time being distracted by the Earl of Southampton’s hair. He (Xavier Samuel) was fairly easy on the eye, which helped, but the hair fascinated me. Surely it had to be a wig? Was it some kind of tribute to Lord Flashheart in Blackadder II?
I feel rather sorry for the pro-Oxfordians. This film was an excellent chance for them to put their arguments forward to the general public, rationally, logically and engagingly. Instead their theories have been overshadowed by a hodge-podge of silly conspiracy theories about what went on under Elizabeth I’s skirts. If nothing else, this has encouraged me to think of alternatives I can recommend to you. For Elizabeth I, there’s the excellent series Elizabeth I, which cemented my admiration for Helen Mirren and which has a richly authentic-sounding script. For Shakespeare, aside from the obvious, there’s also the intriguing drama A Waste Of Shame, starring Rupert Graves as our favourite misunderstood author. Although originally made for the Open University, this is fascinating in its own right, as a dramatised theory about the genesis of the Sonnets.
But I am ready to be put right. Am I missing the point in wanting my historical films to be accurate? Have I taken this too seriously? Have you been converted to the Oxfordian cause? Is this in fact Xavier Samuel’s own hair? Questions, questions…