Having rewatched Conan recently, I’m not readily inclined to believe that the pen is really mightier than the sword. You don’t see Arnie setting about Thelsa Doom with a refillable biro. Yet this, Roland Emmerich tells us, is the premise of his next movie Anonymous, a pairing of director and subject as leftfield as anything we’ll witness until Terrence Malick signs on for Die Hard 5.
Anonymous is an Elizabethan conspiracy drama spanning the second half of the 16th century. A world away from the end of the World, it’s set in the same candlelit realm as Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth and promises an equal share of cloaks and daggers. But, laughs producer and VFX maestro Volker Engel of the latest from the man who's frozen, flooded and flambéed the planet in short order, “no destruction!”
Delving deep into the Shakespearean authorship controversy*, Anonymous posits that the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) was the actual genius behind Shakespeare’s 36 plays and 154 sonnets. Shakespeare – or Shakspere, if you prefer – is the willing stooge, a theatrical impresario with an appetite for the ladies and flagons of ale.** Yes, Kenneth Branagh is off shooting Thor for ten minutes and this happens.
The theory is almost a 100 years old but, thanks to Anonymous, it’s going to bubble and spit like Hamlet’s cauldron. Make no mistake, this is a literary death-match. There are several sides to pick from. If you think Shakespeare wrote the plays you’re a ‘Stratfordian’. If you think Oxford did, you’re an ‘Oxfordian’. If you think Francis Bacon did, you’re a ‘Baconian’. And if you think Dan Brown did it, you're Ron Howard.
But as far as Anonymous is concerned, literature ain’t the half of it. There’s the sex, too. Oxford has a passionate affair with Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), who, he is later informed by the Queen’s weasely powerbroker William Cecil, is – wait for it – his mother. And she’s had his child. Who she also has a child with. It’s enough to have your local Tibetan monk reaching for his gong.
I travelled to the film’s Potsdam set to find out if everything my English teacher taught me was a lie. The answer (like most of my school essays) was “yes and no”.
Yes, because none of the gilded cast of British thesps present, Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave and David Thewlis among them, would admit to being Stratfordians – one, Mark Rylance, a committed member of Team Oxford, argued fiercely against Shakespeare’s claims. Oxford, according to Ifans (mildly put out to be dragged up in front of an assembled throng of hacks during filming) had "a mind like a creamy pumpkin the size of the universe".
But Anonymous is shaping up to be more than just a good excuse for the predictable ‘Bardegeddon’ or ‘Emmerich destroys the wold” headlines (and the one, ahem, at the top of the screen). The authorship question is a fun route into a widescreen Elizabethan world Emmerich is recreating with impressive CGI and 70+ painstakingly hand-built sets. One, a full-scale replica of London’s Rose Theatre, rises imposingly above the low-rise surrounds of Studio Babelsberg, once home to Fritz Lang’s modernist metropolis and Robert Wiene’s monstrous Dr. Caligari.
The set buzzes with the director’s energy and bonhomie, although there’s one testy press-conference moment when he’s asked (not for the first time) what, if anything, will explode during the film. He’s quick to remind the assembled hacks that his first feature was cerebral sci-fi The Noah’s Ark Principle. There’s more to me than global cataclysm and die-hard doggies, he’s saying. Although not in as many words.
So, even if Anonymous does do for the Tudors’ gene pool and Shakespeare's repute what Godzilla did to Manhattan, it’s an intriguing change of pace and direction for the German director. But what do you make of it? And who really wrote Shakespeare's plays? Answers on the cyber-parchment below...
* In the early 20th century, J. Thomas Looney (disappointingly pronounced ‘lone-y’) put on paper what a lot of people had privately believed: that Oxford was the real author of Hamlet, Othello, Lear et al, and was using Shakespeare as a cover to attack members of Elizabeth’s court. ** Other candidates put forward include Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and - the magic bullet - the ‘group theory’, in which the plays were written by a combo of de Vere, Bacon, Mary Sidney, and one or two others.
musht Posted on Friday May 21, 2010, 21:13
Well this is BOLLOX!! Not the blog the fact that they're making a movie bout this authorship B.S. why can't people accept that Shakespeare was in fact Shakespeare and not this Oxford chap who dies before half of Shakespeare's plays were written, plays inspired by historical events Oxford wasn't alive for. Not only that but Oxford actually wrote himself and his works were nothing compared to Shakespeares so why would he but all his best work under the name of Shakespeare. Needless to say I won't be seeing this
Lemure Posted on Saturday May 22, 2010, 22:04
Branagh does superhero movie, Emmerich does period drama. What next? Burton doing a Jen An rom-com? Michael Bay co-directing with Nancy Meyers? Wes Anderson doing a JCVD STV? Tarantino doing a film where conversations last less than three hours? Neil Marshall doing a film NOT set in Scotland? Shane Meadows signing on for Transformers 4? Christopher Nolan making a film with only seven subplots? Tony Scott taking ritalin before entering the editting suite? John Landis remaking Casablanca? Kathryn Bigelow remaking Raise The Titanic? James Cameron doing a low budget biopic of Margaret Thatcher?
And I'm spent.
kpenga Posted on Sunday May 23, 2010, 02:25
how the fuck joely richardson is rhys ifans mother?
monkeyfish Posted on Sunday May 23, 2010, 15:42
I agree with musht. This is horrible. I didn't think that Emmerich could show less respect to history than with The Patriot, but he's outdone himself here. I can't believe that respected actors are onboard with a theory this ridiculous. There is absolutely no evidence that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays that he's credited with, no reason to suppose he was incapable of writing them. The idea that he didn't is pure snobbery based on the utterly objectionable idea that England's greatest poet could not possibly have come from a relatively humble background. There is, however, plenty of evidence that de Vere did not, and could not, write the plays. Evidence like, hmm, his death in 1604, at least six years before Shakespeare was writing his final masterpiece, The Tempest.
BethN21286 Posted on Monday May 24, 2010, 15:51
So Queen Elizabeth had at least two kids and no-one noticed? That is some kind of tailoring, they had back then.
Everything Lemure described will happen before I bother watching this twaddle, that's right, I called it twaddle.
JimKing75 Posted on Tuesday May 25, 2010, 12:53
This is an age old theory, and had been largely de-bunked over the years. it would seem that many thought it would be quite impossible for a mere 'commoner' to have written such inspiring works - so it would have to be a member of the upper classes. It is tosh. These works were written for the common Elizabethan folk to lap up, not for their masters - especially his comedies which are well known for being bawdy romps.
dunkah Posted on Tuesday May 25, 2010, 13:43
Well I was wrong - I presumed that with Anonymous an interesting and amusing (albeit ridiculous) theory was being taken and turned into two and a half hours of entertainment, a la From Hell (though i do use the term entertainment VERY loosely there) or JFK, but it is obvious from the reactions of my fellow posters that this is being presented as documented fact. Balderdash and piffle and down with this sort of thing, i say!
If this is indeed the case then I must write a letter to Tom Stoppard immediately to complain about Shakespeare In Love. The swine!
are you the farmer? Posted on Wednesday May 26, 2010, 14:15
I'm with dunkah, when has the truth ever got in the way of a bit of silver screen entertainment? If it's fun then I'll watch it; if it's pap then I won't. I seriously doubt that the kind of people who'll watch it are the type to have their historical knowledge heavily swayed by whatever is in vogue in Hollywood any given year.
Anyway, you can't beat a bit of incest to create a humorous storyline...