At the Movies: Anonymous (2012)




2012 • 130 minutes • Columbia Pictures

Anonymous holds a special place in my biography—it’s the film that introduced me to theaters that serve real food while you watch, planting the seeds for my lifelong devotion to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. I saw Anonymous because I knew an underclasswoman in college who desperately wanted to see it. But the only place showing the film was a weird theater on the north side of town, so she needed somebody with a car, a free afternoon, and the willingness to submit themselves to Anonymous. And I, connoisseur of bad cinema, was that somebody. Off we went to Cinebistro, a restaraunt/theater joint with luxuriously cushy seats, a full bar, and twenty minutes of previews. I fell in love instantly.

And as for Anonymous? Well, Anonymous may well be one of the greatest bad movies of our times.

To paraphrase The Flop House host and comedy writer Dan McCoy, only middle of the road movies are predictable. Both the truly great and the truly bad will surprise you at every turn. At no point during your first viewing of Anonymous do you remotely suspect what will come next. And if you do, that’s only because you’re familiar with the Prince Tudor theory of anti-Shakespearian conspiracy theory, in which case—pipe down, friend. This is an experience worth preserving.

If you’re unfamiliar with any anti-Shakespeare conspiracy theories, then let me familiarize you. Anonymous proposes not that William Shakespeare wrote the canon attributed to him, but that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, did. This premise, while bonkers wrong, could make for an intriguing period film that pits the working class Shakespeare against the elite Oxford. But that is not the film that Roland Emmerich, whose sensitivity as a filmmaker is best expressed by this year’s whitewashed and ciswashed Stonewall, wants to make. No; Emmerich doesn’t see Shakespeare as the hero in that conflict, but de Vere. And de Vere deserves an epic film. Anonymous may seem, at first blush, like an outlier in Emmerich’s filmography, but trust me—it is not.

What makes Anonymous so stupidly sublime is its sheer commitment to its absurdity. It’s not that it just argues that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare: it’s that it argues that he was an alcoholic, working class, and illiterate slob and con man. It’s not just that de Vere “wrote” Shakespeare; it’s that he’s a tortured genius tormented by the misunderstanding of the world around him, who can never be held accountable for his frankly terrible behavior. It’s not just that Queen Elizabeth is a lusty queen with ultimate power; it’s that… well, I don’t want to spoil you. It’s like beginning a conversation with someone in good faith and them calling you Hitler immediately. It is the very cinematic definition of escalation, as long as escalation can be graphed as a cliff instead of an incline.

This level of commitment breeds flourishes that, while not delivered as arch, are nonetheless read as such. The framing device features a slumming Derek Jacobi and a deep misunderstanding of how theater works to feign an aura of cinematic Shakespearean authority. The film jumps between timelines with nary a care in the world. Sebastian Armesto’s Ben Jonson autocorrects to Luke Evans. (That could just be me.) Trystan Gravelle’s Kit Marlowe is Marlowe as filtered through Bill Hader’s Vincent Price impression. And Vanessa Redgrave, playing Queen Elizabeth, gives a lived-in, wry, and heartbreaking performance as the Virgin Queen that it is astonishing that it lives in this film.

There are some bad movies whose glory only occurs in fit and starts. But Anonymous is wall to wall bonkers, and that is something that should be seen as an achievement.

I highly recommend supplementing any viewing of Anonymous with Kyle Kalgren’s analysis of the film for his show, Brows Held High. It’s also a great way to get the flavor of the film without subjecting yourself to it. Kalgren tears apart the historical inaccuracies of both the film and the Prince Tudor theory to which it subscribes, before honing in on why anti-Shakespeare theories are such tosh and why Shakespeare has universal appeal. It ends up being quite touching and inspiring, and it’s astonishing that Anonymous’ existence prompted this into being.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

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