I finally saw "Anonymous" the other day.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether I think William Shakespeare of Stratford or Edward de Vere wrote the plays, the film itself is such a curious mixture of intelligent speculation and absurd rants that I hardly know what to think.
Roland Emmerich says in the behind-the-scenes clip on the DVD, "I think the whole authorship question comes out of the fact that there was a man who was just the first modern author, who in more than thirty plays summed up what we humans are.... I had heard inklings, there’s like an authorship question, then you read a script about it and you all of a sudden say to yourself, wow, this is an amazing story. Basically, the more and more I read, the more I think that William Shakespeare has not written these works, had nothing to do with it. I’m always drawn to these kind of things when there is something there that people can argue about." Perhaps it wasn't his intention, but this makes it sound like he just wanted to make a movie that would stir things up.
He certainly does. I just think he goes too far. The Ben Jonson storyline, that de Vere selects the already well-established Jonson to front de Vere's play "Henry V" -- de Vere's inability to do so himself is because of the play's propagandistic nature -- and that Jonson's reluctanct agreement then leads to the opportunistic William Shakespeare stepping in ahead of him, is quite logical. If Emmerich had stayed there, he might have had a good argument. The idea that Elizabeth had a youthful affair with a courtier and bore a child in secret, I found a little harder to accept, but also remotely possible, if only very remote. The idea that this illegitimate son then grows up to be none other than Edward de Vere himself, and all unkowing, has an affair with Elizabeth and sires an illegitimate son which Elizabeth bears in secret, pushes the whole thing way over the edge of credulousness.
This leads to my other point about the film, that the extensive use of CGI gives the whole thing such an air of artificiality that it's difficult to believe that Emmerich himself believes it, certainly in the exterior scenes.
(Don't even get me started on the fact that all of the good characters are blond and handsome (and male), and that all of the bad characters are dark-haired and ugly.)
"I'm not a big theatre nut," Emmerich says in a Guardian interview last year. "But when I realised that I had to make a movie about Elizabethan theatre, I read everything I could about it. I tried to look for other movies that showed these scenes, and the only films I found were Shakespeare in Love and Stage Beauty, and they didn't really show it at all. There was no performance there, ever. There were rehearsals and then little snippets of things, but there was nothing that showed what the theatre meant to people. So I said, 'Guys, we have to show how it really felt.' Because it hit me, in the middle of a rehearsal that, at the time these plays were performed, 80 or 90% of the audience was illiterate. There was not much reading material. Books were incredibly expensive. So they must have eaten it up."
Now, I happen to consider "Shakespeare in Love" one of my favorite movies ever, one that I can watch again and again and enjoy more deeply every time, from performances and production values to its theories about the sources for the plays -- even though, yes, the Lady Viola character for one is a complete fiction, it all makes sense in the context of the film. Anyway, for Emmerich to say that there is "no performance" in "Shakespeare in Love" makes me wonder what on earth he saw, since the production of "Romeo and Juliet" takes up a good portion of the end of the film, and the whole point of it was to show, in fact, "what the theatre meant to people". If the astonished faces of groundlings and gallery-goers alike doesn't do that, I don't know what would.
Well, it is fascinating to see Rhys Ifans in such a subtle, dark role, when I am so familiar with him from "Notting Hill" and "Danny Deckchair". (Look at his hand in the picture at the top of this post. There is an actor who knows how a Renaissance-era courtier poses.) And Rafe Spall is so good that I almost believe that the man from Stratford was a simpleton. Almost.
And as a last word -- for today, at least -- I happened to be reading a preview of John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen. Now of course Mullan is writing about Jane Austen and not about Shakespeare at all, but in the introduction he points out that there are only a few manuscripts of her novels surviving -- some juvenilia, unfinished fragments of Sanditon and The Watsons and a few others, and Persuasion. This of course immediately made me think of the Oxfordian argument that we have so little in Shakespeare's writing. Mullan goes on, "Jane Austen’s obscurity among her contemporaries is all the more striking when one considers her technical audacity. There was nothing so surprising about the fact that she wrote novels. There was something miraculous about the fact that she wrote novels whose narrative sophistication and brilliance of dialogue were unprecedented in English fiction. She introduced free indirect style to English fiction, filtering her plots through the consciousnesses of her characters. She perfected fictional idiolect, fashioning habits of speaking for even minor characters that rendered them utterly singular. She managed all this with extraordinary self-confidence and apparently without the advice or expert engagement of any other accomplished writer. She had had access to books, of course, and the conversations of a bookish family, but no circle of fellow authors. It might be a wrench to think of Austen, the conservative literary genius in a revolutionary age, as an experimental writer, but such she was. This has nothing to do with her subject matter: indeed, provide some bare plot summaries of her novels, and they can be made to sound rather less daring that those of contemporaries such as Maria Edgeworth or Mary Brunton. Her brilliance is in the style, not the content. Even when it comes to her characters, her success is a matter of formal daring as much as psychological insight. We hear their ways of thinking because of Austen’s tricks of dialogue; their peculiar views of the world are brought to life by her narrative skills."