Deborah Ross


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To see or not to see, that is the question, just as it is always the question with us — I believe our relationship may be caught in what is generally referred to as a ‘rut’ — but I shall answer all the same and my answer is this: Anonymous is a ‘not see’ and I would urge you to not see it at your earliest possible convenience. Shame, as it had looked such a prospect. It’s a big, fat costume drama set during the Elizabethan era which asks what some scholars have been asking for the past century or so: did Shakespeare actually write the works credited to him?

It has a tremendous cast, and stars, among others, Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and David Thewlis. With hindsight, I think I expected one of those playful, speculative histories like Shakespeare in Love or Amadeus or The Madness of King George but, instead, what you get is a bloated, soapy melodrama so incompetently executed that if it doesn’t confuse you it’s only because you’ve nodded off. I certainly nodded off for quite a substantial chunk in the middle, for which I am and will for ever remain intensely grateful.

This is directed by Roland Emmerich, previously known for science fiction blockbusters like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, and who should probably have stuck to science fiction blockbusters like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Watching this film is like watching a child take two pieces of a toy or a puzzle which don’t actually fit and try to bash them together anyhow. It has a script by John Orloff which includes lines that would not appear in any film you could take seriously, like: ‘Worry not, he’s a one-trick pony.’ I think Tom Stoppard can safely sleep at night, and Peter Shaffer and Alan Bennett. I think they can ‘worry not’.

Anonymous opens as it means to go on, and on, and on, for the full 2 hours and 10 minutes minus the nap, if you are lucky enough to get one in. It opens pretentiously in the present day with Derek Jacobi standing on a Broadway stage and overly-declaiming (I could practically feel his spit on my face) a mighty chunk of exposition questioning the authenticity of Shakespeare’s works. As the largely uneducated son of an illiterate tradesman, how could he have written all those marvellous plays and sonnets? (There is this view, I know, but it seems awfully snobbish: like saying Harold Pinter couldn’t have written his plays because he’s from Hackney and his father was a tailor.) Anyway, from the present it then cuts to 400 years earlier from which point it may go back a further 40 years, or forward five, and then back two, and forward four. If, at any time, you have a clue where you are, you are doing exceptionally well.

The film centres — just about, as it goes off on so many irrelevant digressions — on Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Ifans), who in this telling is the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays, but cannot divulge this due to his rank. His own wife is appalled. ‘You’re...writing again!’ she says, freezing with the sort of horror which, personally, I would have kept in reserve in case I ever caught him rogering a goat, say. Yearning to see his work performed, he hands over his manuscripts to William Shakespeare, a booby of an actor played by Rafe Spall with the mannerisms of Ricky Gervais, for some reason.

There is a great deal about Anonymous that is ‘for some reason’. For example, for some reason, Emmerich and Orloff decide to bash together the authorship plot with intrigue at court, not that one really has anything to do with the other. Still, here’s Queen Elizabeth I, variously played by Richardson and Redgrave, depending on whether she is young or old, and whether we have gone back 40 years or forward five and then back two. This whole film is meaningless as you never have any idea what is true, what might be true, and what isn’t in any way true, and it therefore never feels fixed to anything that could even be vaguely authentic. The virgin queen, in this, is certainly painted as anything but. She’s a goer who, over the years, appears to have given birth to scores of bastards. We are asked, particularly, to keep our eye on the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Southampton, although as I couldn’t tell one from the other this isn’t as easy as it seems. I think we are also asked to believe that Elizabeth boffed one of her own sons. Or did I dream that during my little sleep?

This is a stupid person’s idea of what a clever film might be and, although I adore Ifans, not even he can save it. He just pads around, looking mournful and damp-eyed while his fingers are perpetually ink-stained (a bit of a giveaway, you’d have thought). This could have been intriguing and provoking but instead it is laughable and wholly beside the point. Let’s hope for better next week when I shall answer your question yet again. Seriously, we do need to get out of this rut. I’m even beginning to think you may only want me for the one thing...