The Artist Formally Known as Shakespeare

I like to think of Roland Emmerich as a kind of postmodern Ed Wood, a man whose palpable sincerity and passion for his craft are entirely unhampered by any kind of commitment to narrative causality, plausibility, or fact. Here we have an auteur who genuinely believes, at least according to his interviews, that The Day After Tomorrow would serve as a call to action against global warming, or that next year's end to the Mayan calendar really will plunge us all into a vigorous and extensive rampage of destruction. Like Ed Wood, he has a particular gift when it comes to his passions; whatever you think about his movies, you cannot argue that there is no director on this planet who can take out the White House with an aircraft carrier with quite the same degree of brio. There is something wonderfully charming, and a little heartbreaking, about being Roland Emmerich and not realizing you are Roland Emmerich; but there is also the fact that Roland Emmerich does, from time to time (well, okay, once) make a really fucking great movie, and even when his movies are not really great, they are at the very least really epic. My love for Roland Emmerich is, shall we say, self-aware, but it is not in the least ironic.

So: Anonymous. There are some things I love a lot in this world, and Roland Emmerich movies and Shakespeare are two of those things, and the idea of both of them coming together is (if you will allow me) such stuff as dreams are made on. Anonymous is predicated on the idea that the plays of Shakespeare were in fact written by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere--a theory which, for those of you who care about these things, has absolutely no basis whatsoever in historical fact. You will be shocked, I am sure, to learn that Anonymous does not stop there in its gleeful obfuscation of history; my knowledge of the Elizabethan era is not what it used to be, but I am under the general impression that Anonymous's presentation of that time period is at best wildly inaccurate and at worst verging on libelous.

But frankly, I find complaining about scholarly inaccuracy in a Roland Emmerich film to be analogous to expressing displeasure that Transformers does not correctly represent the mechanics of the internal combustion engine. This is, after all, the man who brought us a technologically advanced, genocidal alien species that can be easily defeated with Jeff Goldblum's laptop computer; the West Coast dissolving into a chasm of fire; and people who survive the apocalypse by burning the tax reference manuals in the main branch of the New York Public Library. You do not go to a Roland Emmerich Shakespeare movie for thoughtful and astute commentary on authorship and authenticity, or a careful study of what little we do know of Shakespeare's biography; you go because you hope, in your secret heart, that Roland Emmerich somehow figured out a way to land a ship full of aliens onstage at the Globe and then obliterate the whole thing with a tsunami. (I am sorry to say he did not.)

I was expecting glorious, big-budget spectacle, and I got it--the costumes are amazing, the sets incredible, the actors almost universally skilled enough to elevate their material to the realm of gravitas (or at least coherence). Vanessa Redgrave is a voracious, magnetic Elizabeth; Edward Hogg is deliciously creepy as Robert Cecil; Rafe Spall's scenery-chewing lout of a Shakespeare is campily hilarious. Xavier Samuel has spectacular hair. (Seriously: everything else has a realistic patina of Elizabethan filth, and yet Xavier Samuel's hair floats above it all in luminous, perfect ringlets.) What I was not expecting was the occasional moment of genuine insight into what motivates a creative mind, into what fires those of us who are willing to abandon the comforts of the material world for the chance at creating something sublime. Against all the odds, those moments are here too--few indeed, but no less lovely for their scarceness.

What I do think Roland Emmerich did, rather splendidly (and, to be honest, I can only assume inadvertently) is create a tribute not so much to Shakespeare, but to the work itself. You do not particularly care about the various aspirants to Elizabeth's throne, you do not care about Edward de Vere's doomed love affair, or his child, or the (wackadoodle, but kind of delightful to a girl who teethed on Flowers in the Attic ) unexpected incest subplot--but you are reminded of the wholly transcendent power of Shakespeare's plays, work so extraordinary that it has remained relevant and beautiful for over four centuries. The movie's somewhat lugubrious script is leavened with chunks of the plays themselves, and those scenes are, dare I say, nothing less than breathtaking. In Anonymous, Shakespeare's work so excites its audiences that they are roused to attack his actors, or weep in unison as Hamlet delivers his most famous soliloquy, or gaze raptly as Romeo sees Juliet for the first time--and it's genuinely beautiful. I will be the first person to admit Roland Emmerich has never in the past demonstrated a particularly native intelligence or sense of irony, but I like to think, against all the evidence, that Anonymous is in fact the best Shakespeare joke ever--a paean to the work of a man who himself had no trouble shucking off historical truth for the sake of art, disguised as a conspiracy theory, disguised as a Roland Emmerich film. Or something. Anyway, it's not like Julius Caesar is any more factual.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what kind of ridiculous theory you want to drum up about who wrote Shakespeare's plays: Edward de Vere, Ben Jonson, Elizabeth herself--who knows, perhaps Stephenie Meyer channeled them all in a dream and sent them back in time. (The young Edward de Vere is played by the nubile morsel Jamie Campbell Bower, who is apparently a vampire in some of the Twilight movies; maybe he wrote them.) What matters is that those plays were brilliant, are still brilliant, will be brilliant for as long as we are able to read them: funny, bawdy, moving, lovely. And I can honestly say that Anonymous, as silly as it may be in (most) places, did more to remind me of that than anything I have seen in a long time.

If Roland Emmerich is currently touring the college lecture circuit as a featured speaker at Shakespeare conspiracy-theorist conferences? Well, I don't know, I personally think that's pretty funny. And if there's one thing we do know for sure about Shakespeare, whoever he was, it's that he had one hell of a sense of humor.