A Powerful Film Defies the History Books

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. Sorry about the plagiarism there, but I needed a snappy opening for this movie review. No matter, I’m not likely to be sued, whoever the author might be. And there’s the rub -- who the devil wrote those lines?

Proponents of the Oxfordian Theory contend they were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Besides this Oxford chap, there’s a plethora of authorship candidates, including Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. But these other guys don’t have a terrific movie going for them, which is our subject: Roland Emmerich’s wondrous Anonymous.

Emmerich had never been on my radar. And if one peruses his IMDb entry, one sees that he’s directed a bunch of lowbrow blockbusters, not the preferred fare of serious folks like the frequenters of this website. However, Emmerich did direct The Patriot (2000) which is a serious flick (here’s a glowing short review of it by David Horowitz).  But regardless of what most of Emmerich’s oeuvre might be, Anonymous is a serious and compelling drama, with moments of high humor.

One family that played an important role, both in history and in our film, was the Cecils. As Puritans, the Cecils had a problem with the theatre, thinking it sinful. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, was Queen Elizabeth’s principle advisor. William was quite the Machiavellian and had an elaborate plan for the English monarchy. William’s only daughter, Anne Cecil, became the long-suffering wife of Edward de Vere. William’s son, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, succeeded him as advisor to the queen. William is played by the dependable David Thewlis. Anne is played by Helen Baxendale, new to me, who is quite good in her confrontations with her husband. But the big discovery for me was Edward Hogg, who plays Robert Cecil. Although he is effective throughout, where Hogg’s performance is particularly excellent is in the “Big Reveal.”

The Big Reveal begins with Vere in the foreground looking out at the carnage in the courtyard just after Essex’s Rebellion is put down. Sir Robert enters in the far back, and from that point Hogg owns the screen. The scene reveals a shocking bit of business that was not invented out of whole cloth by Emmerich & Co. Rather, it is a variant of the Oxfordian Theory and it’s been around for decades. It’s known as the “Prince Tudor Theory” and alternately as the “Tudor Rose Theory.” If you are not familiar with this theory and want to read up on it before you screen the film, I urge you NOT to do so. See the film first and then study up.

Other than Hogg’s fine acting and the stupefying enormity of the revelation itself, what makes the Big Reveal compelling is the dialog, which is provided by screenwriter John Orloff. (I found a PDF of his screenplay, but notice the URL. What is Orloff’s screenplay doing at a place like WikiLeaks?)

Early in the film, Vere has the playwright Ben Jonson released from jail. Jonson is then taken to Vere’s estate to meet his benefactor. Vere takes Jonson on a stroll through his garden maze:

I enjoyed your little comedy last week, Jonson. You have potential, great potential. […] But its politics did seem to have quite an effect on the Tower. My father-in-law’s men felt it quite seditious. [… It] showed your betters as fools who go through life barely managing to get food from plate to mouth, were it not for the cleverness of their servants. All art is political, Jonson. Otherwise it would just be decoration. And all artists have something to say, otherwise they’d make shoes. And you’re not a cobbler, are you, Jonson?

Vere then nods to his servant Francesco who hands Jonson a play, which Vere wants Jonson to stage under Jonson’s name. Jonson expresses his puzzlement at this strange idea, to which Vere replies:

I cannot very well use my name, can I? I’m the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, Viscount Bolebec, Lord Escales, Sanford, and Badlesmere, et cetera et cetera. No. I have a reputation to protect. In my world, one does not write plays, Jonson. People like you do. […] Well don’t look at me like I just gutted your pet dog, Jonson. I mean to make you the most popular -- and therefore the most monetarily successful -- playwright in all of London. I wish you Godspeed and good morrow.

Vere abruptly leaves as Francesco drops a bag of money at Jonson’s feet, warning him to keep this arrangement secret or else. There’s just one snag with this little arrangement, it has wounded Jonson’s pride. So when he stages Vere’s play, he doesn’t put his nor anyone else’s name on it. The play, however, is a resounding success. And on opening night with shouts for the playwright to take a bow, an actor in the company, one William Shakespeare, presents himself onstage as the author, and the rest is history.

The Bard often used the device of the play within a play. In Anonymous we get plays within a film, and there are a bunch of them, one of which has the most moving scene in the movie. It’s in that first play that Jonson stages for Vere, when King Harry delivers his rousing St. Crispin’s Day Speech. We only get the end of the speech, but it’s so effective. The following video is set to take 56 seconds. The playgoer watching from the balcony, elegantly acted by Rhys Ifans, is Vere himself:

What we have here and with the other “plays within the film” are the very first performances of some of the Bard’s greatest plays. The thing that makes this scene from Henry V so powerful is the inspired direction. From the screenplay, we read that Orloff stipulated that: “The actor playing ‘Henry’ kneels at the front of the stage. He speaks to the groundlings as though they are his troops.” But I found no directions for the groundlings to reach for the king. Nor did I read about the overhead shot. So we probably have Emmerich to thank for this splendid bit of stagecraft within cinema-craft.

After Harry exhorts his army on to glory, the battle of Agincourt commences. But the groundlings have become so transfixed by Harry’s oratory, that they enter the fray, even getting on stage to battle the French. It’s a madhouse. This delights Vere, who seems to see the ruckus as confirmation of the power of his play; he exclaims: “Francesco, do you see?  Do you see?”

Sadly, Anonymous made back barely half of the $30 million it cost to make, an index of the demise of taste in the Anglosphere. This was no doubt due to the reception it got from misguided critics and literature/ history scolds who took issue with the theories the film is built upon. Again, please don’t read any reviews and critiques until you’ve seen the film at least once. If you’re not bogged down with theory nor weighted down with what (you think) you know about the Elizabethans, you’ll enjoy Anonymous. It’s out in Blu-ray, by the way, and on cable this month at Starz.

As for the identity of the Bard, my money’s on Vere.

Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.

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