I was quite glad when ANONYMOUS got an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes — I saw it with my costume designer friend, whose expert eye gave it the once over and declared that it was maybe the best Elizabethan stuff she’d ever seen. And designer Lisy Christl had never done such a big film before (though her matching tennis duds and white gloves for the killers in FUNNY GAMES are one memorable contribution to cinematic dress — I hate the film, but it’s an arresting look).

Though I didn’t like the film quite as much as my expert friend did, I was pretty astonished that such a handsome, unusual, well-structured and basically non-sucky movie could come from Roland Emmerich, the mind behind INDEPENDENCE DAY (credit where it’s due: that movie did cause me to go see a lot fewer blockbusters in the following years). While it’s true that every good point of the movie has some accompanying bad points, the overall experience does NOT leave you feeling ripped off and insulted, which is maybe a first for the director.

The look: apart from the beautiful costumes, which are simultaneously original and convincing, the movie benefits from good mucky sets, planks strewn through muddy streets, and impressive CGI overviews — the next step on from Olivier’s vast model shot of Shakespeare’s London which opens his HENRY V, and a lot more handsome and convincing than the comparable stuff in the ELIZABETH duology. This is a big film, but not a HUGE film, so it’s an impressive achievement.

On the minus side, Anna Foerster’s cinematography (or the digital grading thereof) is in thrall to the current fad for orange and teal colour schemes. There are a few welcome bits that depart from this, but generally in favour of monochromatic effects, so the spectrum isn’t exactly original. BUT on the other hand, it all looks genuinely pretty, and candlelight and firelight do at least provide motivation for the warm flesh tones. I think the fact that this look is currently over-used is the only objection — at least here it’s used well.

Performances: we get a new side to Rhys Ifans in this, where he has to emerge as something approximating a leading man. We also get some fresh faces in meaty roles, which is unusual and refreshing — it can be assumed that Edward Hogg in particular, whose cold villainy enlivens many a scene, is going to be very big. And Rafe Spall gets his best role yet as Shakespeare — you know, the guy who didn’t write Shakespeare.

The only down side to this is the potential for confusion in the  large cast, some of whom inhabit more than one time frame, and some of whom are consequently played by more than one actor. But when was the last time you felt you had to work to keep up with an Emmerich movie?

The story: the notion of the Earl of Oxford being the author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets may or may not be nonsense (but I highly recommend John Michell’s fascinating Who Wrote Shakespeare? for a broadminded summation of the various theories), and the political subtexts attributed to the plays in John Orloff’s ambitious script ARE complete fantasy, but the story moves, intrigues, surprises and ultimately delivers.

Dialogue: only Rafe Spall really sounds like a person, but the others, working in a more stylised mode, get away with the formal speech, and somehow the obvious question — Why does everybody speak in such an antiquated way in the plays, while never using a single obsolete expression in their offstage speech — never really jumps out at you.

Shakespeare may not have written any plays, but he totally invented the stage-dive.

Art/life: the movie’s take on the purpose of Shakespeare’s plays — political propaganda to influence the mob — is kind of dumb, and does the work a disservice. But the evocation of HENRY V’s debut is striking and exciting. Elsewhere, there are gigantic, and quite deliberate, factual errors (like the Globe burning down ten years early), which is all acceptable for dramatic purposes. But the final device, whereby Oxford, the true author, tries to mobilize public opinion against hunchbacked politico Robert Cecil, by staging Richard III. Leaving aside the fact that the play staged at this historical moment was actually Richard II, this makes about as much sense as the computer virus that takes down the aliens in ID4. The Globe-mob become immediately enraged at the sight of the Cecil-lookalike, before he’s even gotten as far as “…determined to prove a villain.” I wanted to actually hear the following dialogue:

“Hey, he looks like that other guy!”

“The play’s right! He IS a hunchback!”

“Yeah, I hate him!”

“Let’s riot!”

Had the movie been a little less impatient, it could certainly have made this scene play a bit more convincingly, and since it cues the film’s climax (an attempted coup: basically VALKYRIE with ruffs), it’s important to try and get it right. But it doesn’t wreck things altogether.

It’s a bitter irony that Emmerich’s first non-travesty has underperformed compared to the ghastly trash he’s pumped onto our screens in the past. I can’t feel altogether sorry for him, since really the director of GODZILLA deserves some grief. But it’s a shame for everyone who suffered through the big lizard but missed out on the court intrigue.

I wrote two lines of a limerick about this, so inspired was I by the bard’s poetic vision. Then I couldn’t think of an ending, so Hilary Barta of Limerwrecks stepped in —


Is Shakespeare a bard or a boor?
It appears that it’s hard to make sure!
Was it really an earl
What coined ev’ry pearl?
Is it all a canard of manure?

Buy John Michell’s terrific book: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

My favourite Shakespearian authorship theories —

The great Ken Campbell came up with the audacious, balls-out insane notion that the plays were “improvised by the actors.” To prove it was possible to improvise in iambic pentameter, he organized marathon improv sessions for actors, demonstrating that “the iambs only kick in after the twelfth hour.” But after twelve hours of it, you may find it easier to continue than to stop.

And in Bob Burden’s comic, The Flaming Carrot, our hero “the world’s strangest man” travels back in time to meet the swan of Avon, only to discover a drooling bumpkin. The true author, a shadowy caped figure, is eventually tracked down, and in a surprise revelation, proves to be Buddy Hackett.

33 Responses to “Anomalous”

  1. The ultimate joke about the Oxford Theory movement, which for what its worth was bought in by the likes of Freud, briefly considered by Orson Welles and supported by Charlie Chaplin, is that the author of the book putting forth the hypothesis was
    T. J. Looney. It practically demands an exegesis by the late Raul Ruiz.

    My main problem with these authorship theories is that all of them seem to pivot on the notion that someone from an out of the way province without a complete University education couldn’t possibly write the greatest works of English literature. Ben Jonson wrote in his dedication that his friend didn’t know Latin and Greek at all, so that was considered even then. So you have people saying that Francis Bacon wrote it, or maybe Marlowe faked his death and wrote under an assumed name, proto-blacklist style. And this Earl of Oxford guy.

  2. And I for one felt profoundly ripped-off and insulted.

    The Oxford Theory movement is based entirely on class snobbery and nothing more. The “evidence” that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare is premised on the belief that no on of such “low birth’ could have wirtten these plays. Any evedence to the contrary (and there’s a ton and a half of it) is brushed away with a scented lace handkerchief (“Obsession” by Calvin Klein)

    Raul Ruiz, armed with an Umberto Eco script, would have had a ton of fun making a film about the Oxfordians.

    A number of years back John Maybury planned to make a Marlowe biopic. But alas it expired in Development Hell. Still we’ve got Derek Jarman’s Edward II

  3. Buddy Hackett! Thank you, Bob Burden.

  4. Anomalous indeed! And it really did seem like something more than a bid for respectability. I was a bit disappointed by how little fun Ifans seemed to be having in the lead, and Edward Hogg (who I couldn’t take my eyes off in “Bunny and the Bull”) did an excellent impression of Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride, but little more… but still, what fantastic performances from the women to make up for it! Gorgeous work from both Elizabeth I’s, and I also loved Spall’s Shakespeare-as-James-Corden, oh and Rylance! Seeing the modern-day daddy of the Globe given free reign to please the crowds was a lovely experience. Perhaps the mist surprising delight though came at the end: having the credits run over a theatre audience shuffling out of their seats and leaving the work unapplauded, while in the cinema of course the real audience is doing exactly the same, is a startlingly subtle castigation to come from the man who tried to reboot Godzilla.

  5. Which was nowhere near as a good as Cloverfield

  6. Chaplin, of all people, pontificated that “Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic air,” which is just baloney.

    But some of the arguments are a bit more nuanced than that: the fact that Shakespeare died not owning a single book is at least striking and thought-provoking. I don’t call any of it “evidence,” but it does seem like decent inspiration to spin an alternative yarn.

    I thought at first I wasn’t going to like Vanessa in this, because she kind of ruins her first decent line (because she didn’t get the joke, I think) but she’s magnificent. And it’s terrific to have Joely Richardson as her younger self.

    Marlowe is, of course, a much more interesting character — he’s more defined (Shakespeare’s plays don’t give us many strong ideas of how he felt about many subjects) while at the same time mysterious.

  7. James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? goes into detail on the history and psychology of the authorship issue (which didn’t become an issue until 200 years after Shakespeare’s death), viewing it as a potent conspiracy theory. As far as I know, no serious Shakespeare scholars have yet to subscribe to the Oxonian line. But I do like Ken Campbell’s theory, which is insane but reminds us that Shakespeare surely had a good deal of input and influence from those gifted players.

    In any case, Shakespeare and his plays could take break from the movies and allow more of his contemporaries in. Jonson, Middleton, Webster, and Ford have all written work as cinematic, or more so, than the Swan of Avon’s. Cox’s The Revenger’s Tragedy was a good start; here’s hoping for movies of The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, Tamerlane, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Alchemist, The Broken Heart, Women Beware Women, and so on [insert your own pick].

  8. Hmmm…Theatre of Blood Lines?

  9. Some authors point out that Shakespeare not being given aristocratic education doesn’t mean he was a savant. His dad was an alderman and most likely he picked up loads hanging out in London with actors. One thing everyone agrees on was that Marlowe cast a spell on him and influenced his work. There are many allusions to his work in his plays and oblique references to his fate in his works. TITUS ANDRONICUS is a homage to the man with the “Mighty Line” and its harsher than any of the other tragedies.

  10. The REAL author of Shakespeare’s plays was Cole Porter!

  11. Marlowe was also of low birth, which was precisely why he had a comprehensive mastery of Greek and Latin, including classical rhetoric and versification. In order to get into Cambridge, as he did, he actually had to learn that stuff, whereas the “educated” upper classes were largely comprised of dimwitted spare sons who were the equivalent of “legacy admissions” at Harvard or Yale. Of course Shakespeare didn’t have a university degree, so he wouldn’t have been capable of the parody of shallow education which is the opening of Dr. Faustus. But he was another ambitious offspring of the hoi polloi. He had to learn stuff. You know, words ‘n’ stuff. Whereas there’s no more reason to think that dukes and earls would be a fount of great literature then than there is now.

  12. Oxford was at least a supporter of great literature. By the slightly crazy logic of Shakespearean controversialists, that stands him in good stead. Since all Shakespeare ever did of note was write the works of Shakespeare, he becomes a rather pallid figure if you take that away from him…

    Ken Campbell once played the role of Angus in Macbeth, and decided it was played by the author: “Because he always gave himself little roles — like Hitchcock!”

  13. True, without the magic tricks Jesus was just a lousy carpenter. But could Oxford MAKE SHOES? Marlowe could.

    My attitudes are probably influenced by the fact that I’m currently reading Wolf Hall, wherein low-born Thomas Cromwell is light-years ahead of every aristocrat he meets in intellect and experience.

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    Maybe Marlowe could make shoes, but I’m still wearing a pair of Oxfords, and not a pair of Marlowes.

  15. I was also hoping ANONYMOUS would turn out to be more fun than it actually was. If you’re going to indulge in lunatic conspiracy theories, you should go full bore. The weakest aspect was the way the Oxfordian theory was tied to the question of succession. It seemed to me that to make a true Shakespearean tragedy out of it, Oxford should have been vying for the throne for himself. It almost goes there in the end when we find out who Oxford’s mother is, but that should have been front and center, not an ironic punchline.

    Anyway, I agree with IA that it would be nice to see more film adaptations of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, particularly Marlowe and Webster.

  16. I’ve been meaning to take a look at the Richard Burton Faust, which at least looks very handsome, in a Bavaesque way. Agree with you both that a wider range of adaptations would make sense, and also a wider range of stylistic choices. I can’t altogether get behind Baz Luhrmann’s approach, but at least he demonstrated the potential value of casting cinematically rather than theatrically.

  17. Christopher Says:

    Burton’s Dr. Faustus is a ton of fun and a visual stunner..Liz seduces and paves the way to hell without saying a word.campy in a way. and still it all seems to work…more of a quiet cult fave than a lauded theater on film classic.

  18. Randy Byers Says:

    I love Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET and the way it creates an iconography out of Shakespeare’s text. What Christopher says about Burton’s Dr Faustus also seems to apply … “a visual stunner” … “campy in a way”. Not quiet though, that’s for sure.

  19. Randy Byers Says:

    As for contemporaries, there’s also Derek Jarman’s adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II, which I didn’t like as much as his Tempest on a single viewing, but I want to see it again.It went over my head, probably.

  20. Edward II is pretty good, and doesn’t back away from the difficulties of Marlowe — character sympathy being something he actively avoids or complicates. And I quite like the minimal sets. And it’s got Dudley Sutton (my first actor!).

    Seeing the Luhrmann with a crowd of teenage girls really brought home how, for all of its ADHD mannerisms, it works for its intended market. The Zeffirelli, mind you, was a gay awakening film for a generation of British schoolgirls. I don’t know what it is about Olivia Hussey, but it hit home.

  21. I love that Jarman gave Edward II a happy ending, flying in the face of the by-then moribund tragic gay narrative. Happy endings get a very bad press, and I’m trying to think of any other adaptation so brazenly and justifiably more upbeat than the original. I’ve always thought there was a film to made out of Burgess’ Marlowe book “A Dead Man in Deptford”
    Luhrman’s Rome and Juliet starts off horribly but calms to great effect. It came out while I was at University (along with about ten other Shakespeare films, oddly) and provided the soundtrack to a generation.

  22. Derek wanted a happy ending for a number of reasons — one of which was that he was facing death himself. That’s also why Edward and Gaveston are in pajamas — Derek’s final garb.

  23. How does the 30s Moby Dick end? I’ve been afraid to look.

    I like tacked-on happy endings when they declare their own artifice, which Edward II kind of does. The grand-daddy of all that is The Last Laugh.

  24. Randy Cook Says:

    Ahab kills Moby Dick. Via stock footage, Moby is towed back to port and his blubber stripped off.

    Ahab returns home to his true love.

    Prudence:”Why, Ahab Seely, you’re crying.”
    Ahab: “So are you”.
    Kiss. Fade Out.

    I am serious.

  25. Randy Cook Says:

    Except it’s spelled “Ceely”, and her name is Faith. Like it matters.

  26. Boy meets whale. Boy loses whale. Boy gets whale.

  27. Randy Cook Says:

    Boy meets whale. Boy loses leg. Boy gets whale.

  28. Thanks, David E. And it’s glorious. I hadn’t thought about the pyjamas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: