by M. Faust
I’m willing to bet that if you search the internet long enough, maybe even as long as two or three minutes, you can find a list where someone has ranked the great conspiracy theories of history. And I’m sure you’ll find on the top 10, right up with the “real” answers to who shot John Kennedy and how we got into World War II, the notion that the plays of William Shakespeare could not have been written by William Shakespeare.
Read up on it if you like, but be prepared to go down the rabbit hole: The theories, refutations, and counter-theories are endless. There are as many as 70 candidates for the “real” Shakespeare, of which the least acceptable is considered to be Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Given American’s love of conspiracy theories, it’s surprising that a movie hasn’t been made about a “real” Shakespeare before now. Maybe Hollywood decided that American cynicism is at the far swing of the pendulum, and thus now was the proper time to bring out Anonymous, a movie that not only stands up for the Oxfordian theory but goes so far as to invent an entirely political explanation for why his identity was repressed.
If this sounds like a dry treatise suitable only for the artiest of art house crowds, let me correct you. The director is Roland Emmerich, who clearly wants to move away from the disaster movies that have made his fortune. (You can’t blame him: Each successive movie, from Independence Day and Godzilla through The Day After Tomorrow, has featured increasingly cataclysmic disasters. After destroying the entire modern world in his last movie, 2012, he has no place left to go in that vein but backward.)
Despite some confusion of characters due to the usual problem with historical dramas exacerbated by a structure that jumps around in time, Anonymous is a mass-market entertainment with as much appeal as, say, Shakespeare in Love. Rhys Ifans, the Welsh actor usually seen as goofballs and losers, makes for a surprisingly robust hero, concerned with the fate of England upon the impending death of Queen Elizabeth (played in youth and old age by Joely Richardson and her mother Vanessa Redgrave).
Fans of the Virgin Queen are even more likely than Shakespeareans to be upset: Not only do Emmerich and writer John Orloff toss away that “virgin” business—she’s Oxford’s lover here—they do so with a gusto that you’ll have to sit through the film to get the depth of. Suffice to say that fans of the irresistibly lurid The Other Boleyn Girl will be in their element here.
I would give a tongue-in-cheek recommendation to Anonymous—it’s hugely enjoyable aside from the fact that it’s pretty much horseshit—if not for the knowledge that a film like this has little trouble displacing the work of centuries of scholars. Does it make a difference? Americans in recent decades have been proving themselves ever more eager to gobble up ridiculous stories wrapped in a ribbon of iconoclasm and anti-authoritarianism. I would hate to see this become one more incident of that. Emmerich’s next film may be something called Happy Birthday, Mr. President, which as I understand it will use digital re-creation to cast John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe in a story I hate to imagine. If that happens, we will really be down the rabbit hole.
Watch the trailer for Anonymous
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