"Anonymous," the Bard and "Coriolanus"

Besides reviews of the films by Roland Emmerich and Ralph Fiennes, this roundup gathers all things recently Shakespearean.
David Hudson

"Roland Emmerich's Anonymous is a well-polished cowpat that will confuse and bore those who know nothing about Shakespeare and incense those who know almost anything," declares David Edelstein in New York. The film begins with Derek Jacobi announcing on a contemporary Broadway stage that the plays we attribute to Shakespeare are, in fact, the work of "Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, who could not, by virtue of his rank, have anything to do with the theater and so handed over his masterworks — many of which were not performed until well after his death — to a boobish actor named Will Shakespeare, who incidentally was the one who stabbed Christopher Marlowe in the eye. Less improbably, De Vere screwed Queen Elizabeth, as well as (accidentally) his own mum…. Apart from its ineptitude, Anonymous is peculiarly beside the point. Shakespeare's succession of masterpieces, near masterpieces, and thrilling misses is a miracle no matter who did the actual writing: the actor-manager from Stratford-upon-Avon with the grammar-school education or De Vere, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Derby, or Marlowe after faking his own death. Although the least implausible, the Oxfordian case — initially predicated on the idea that no one so meagerly schooled, untraveled, and unacquainted with court life could possibly have written so discerningly about kings, queens, thanes, and Danes — is so unbuttressed as to be laughable, whereas books like Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World make splendid sense of the Stratford Shakespeare's religion, politics, and sympathetic imagination. Moreover, Shakespeare spent enough time on and behind the stage to know what plays and what lays — something well beyond the ken of [screenwriter John] Orloff and Emmerich."

"The whole affair is rather silly, and more than a little boring," wrote Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek in a dispatch from Toronto, "but there are a few flashes of brilliance tucked amid Emmerich's bid for period-picture classiness. First, there's the inspired casting of Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Joely Richardson, as old and young versions of Queen Elizabeth I. Richardson, with her tumble of pale curls, looks like a living, breathing version of John Millais's  Ophelia, but tougher. Redgrave plays her version of the character as if she has become more emotionally vulnerable, not less, with age — the older Elizabeth just works harder to submerge it beneath her imperious veneer. Both performances are great fun to watch, but it's Rhys Ifans, as the Earl of Oxford, who keeps the movie spinning…. His voice, sonorous and always just faintly sorrowful, reminds me of that of the late, great Richard Harris."

"Anonymous is a farrago," writes David Denby in the New Yorker. "If you can tell, as the illegitimate sons grow up, which of the dashing young gentlemen is Southampton (Xavier Samuel) and which is Essex (Sam Reid), and why they matter, and what the plot to hide the authorship of the plays has to do with the struggle to find a successor to the officially childless Elizabeth, then you are more willing than I to get trapped in the London muck and fog that the movie makes so much of."

At Fandor, Michał Oleszczyk adds that Emmerich is "not camping things up — this crass vulgarization of history, politics, poetry and art is his actual idea of what forceful filmmaking really is like." More from Todd Gilchrist (Playlist, D), Amy Nicholson (Box Office, 4/5) and Damon Wise (Guardian, 3/5).

Update: Jason Richards interviews Emmerich for Vulture.

In the New York Times, James Shapiro argues that "promoters of de Vere's cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems. As for the argument that the plays rehearse the story of de Vere's life: since the 1850s, when Shakespeare's authorship was first questioned, the lives of 70 or so other candidates have also confidently been identified in them. Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere's supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare's plays were written."

"It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare," argues Stephen Marche in the NYT Magazine. "Notice that I am not saying improbable; it is impossible." The Shakespeare Oxford Society replies. And back and forth it goes.

"The unholy alliance of 'anti-Stratfordians' boasts Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud among its members," notes the Observer's Robert McCrum. "In the British theatre today, Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi (who appear in Anonymous) are vociferous spokesmen for the Earl of Oxford." But McCrum argues that the plays "have an internal consistency, a natural authenticity that makes its own 'Stratfordian' argument," and he enumerates "three unmistakable hallmarks to Shakespeare's writing."

If you're wondering how minds as sharp as Chaplin's and Welles's could have allied themselves against poor Will, let me recommend the best recent guide to the Oxfordians vs Stratfordians debate I've come across, William S Niederkorn's piece in the current issue of the Brooklyn Rail on by Charles Beauclerk that's being reissued in paperback in conjunction with the release of Anonymous:

Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom could be read simply as a story, and it is written skillfully enough that it does create a world in which the imagination can take flight. A critical reader might mark up the book's margins with notes like, "far out," "very far out," "wrong," "sheer fantasy," and "ridiculous," yet would also occasionally write, "good," "true," "clever," "interesting point," and "reasonable inference." The book is not written to attack any other scholar or storyteller. It is tolerant of opposing points of view, often favorably cites traditional scholars, and it makes all of its assertions conditionally, so it is possible to just follow along without having to be judgmental, to see where the story goes.

These two ways of reading reflect two different ways of looking at the world — the subjective and the objective — and this division applies to Allfordians.

The subjective school comprises those who love to imagine what Shakespeare was like and to tell stories based on their reading of both the canon and historical literature. They do scholarly research and refract it through their own lens and give us books like Will in the World and Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom and films like Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous.

The objective school seeks precision and certainty, and wants to say no more than what can withstand tests of definition, theorem, and probability. Its achievements, such as Shakespeare, Co-Author and Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography are lighthouse beacons to guide all scholarly ships.

Anyone offended by either side of this argument might want to make use of the Shakespeare Insult Kit. In other Shakespearean news, the BBC reports that "Shakespeare in Love is to be adapted for the London stage. Playwright and original screenwriter Tom Stoppard will adapt his own work for the Disney-co-production, industry publication Variety has said. Disney has told the BBC it is 'deep into negotiations' but added 'deals are far from set.'"

"Literally overnight," reports Movieline's ST VanAirsdale, "the producers of Much Ado About Nothing — a new Joss Whedon film 'based on a play' and shot in apparent utter secrecy — launched a Web site featuring a broad, Whedon-veteran ensemble cast (including Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, Amy Acker and many more) and little else. It's reportedly confirmed to be real, though little else is known about it — from its roots in (or fidelity to) the Shakespeare comedy of the same name to how the hell Whedon filmed anything in the midst of The Avengers." Update: Flavorwire's Judy Berman notes that a press release has just gone out, "sent by Whedon and Kai Cole's new micro-studio, Bellwether Pictures, for which Much Ado will be the first feature. Shot in just 12 days in Santa Monica… the adaptation will reflect Whedon's belief that the play is 'a deconstruction of the idea of love, which is ironic, since the entire production is a love letter — to the text, to the cast, even to the house it's shot in.'"

And finally for now, Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus won't open in the US and UK until January, but the film has been making the rounds since its premiere in Berlin in February. "The unappetizing thought of Ralph Fiennes directing himself as Coriolanus in his first film bumped it off the must-see list at the Berlinale, and hardly anyone talked about it there," writes Robert Koehler in Cinema Scope. "Seen several months later, this disinterest is odd, for Fiennes's film is extremely interesting and gamely rescues the play from its demi-obscurity. Though the transfer of the play's ancient Roman milieu to a contemporary setting that connects Rome with the Balkans feels somewhat awkward at first, it soon becomes a vivid world that's more than merely an exotic backdrop. As an unrepentant militarist fascist betrayed by his fellow Romans, Coriolanus is a complex figure in the Benedict Arnold mold, and Fiennes grows fiercer by the scene. Vanessa Redgrave is an astonishing force of maternal care and rage in what will be remembered as one of her great screen performances."

"Set in 'a place calling itself Rome' (it was shot in Belgrade), John Logan's taut adaptation begins in a generically recognizable 21st-century war zone, helped hugely by the go-to cinematographer for jittery combat scenarios, Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker)," writes the Telegraph's Tim Robey.

The play "doesn't offer us a father betrayed, like King Lear, or a good man undone by his own wants, like Macbeth," notes James Rocchi at the Playlist. "[I]nstead, it gives us a Roman general who, in his hunger for war, devours his life — family, country, honor — when the world will not let him be a warrior and, instead, insists he be a war hero. Thrust into politics, Coriolanus is a general, then a politician, and then despised by the people who called for his elevation — leading him to ally with his hated Vosican enemy Tullus Aufidus to attack his own homeland in a fit of rage…. The general's wife, Virgilia, played by Jessica Chastain, just wants her husband home safely… And the senator Menenius — a bluff and booming Brian Cox — praises the general and tries to smooth his passage from the shouts of war to the whispers of politics. And — who could imagine? — Gerard Butler is surprisingly good as Aufidus, whether bellowing in rage or musing on his wounds."

"Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's most overtly political plays," writes Stefan Steinberg at the World Socialist Web Site. "There is little of the reflective monologues and self-questioning to be found in other tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. This lack of self-reflection finds its equivalent, according to Fiennes, in modern politics. In his notes, Fiennes lists George Bush and Tony Blair, for example, as two modern-day politicians who match 'the arrogance and intransigence' of Coriolanus. The larger political dimensions of the play were underlined by the nineteenth century British essayist William Hazlitt, who wrote of Coriolanus: 'The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left.'… Fiennes's Coriolanus is a fascinating glimpse at a significant work."

More from Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 3/5), Guy Lodge (In Contention, 3/5), Geoffrey Macnab (Independent, 4/5), Andrew Pulver (Guardian, 4/5) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline).

Time Out New York's David Fear interviews Fiennes, currently appearing as Prospero in the Theatre Royal Haymarket production of The Tempest. Leo Benedictus rounds up reviews for the Guardian: "Fiennes is actually the best thing about this production, in the view of half the critics. The other half — actually more like three quarters — would say he is the only good thing it has."

Updates, 10/26: Michael Dobson in the Guardian on Anonymous: "Taken as a serious account of real history, this is so plainly daft, and so wildly at variance with all the copious evidence we have about Shakespeare, the Elizabethan theatre, Oxford, Elizabeth and Southampton alike, that it is beyond rational refutation. Taken as a version of one of our culture's perennially recurring daydreams, however — the tale of the oppressed rightful prince, wickedly deprived of his true heritage and recognition — it ought to give us serious food for thought about the ease with which fantasy, in some minds, can prove far more compelling than mere truth." More from Tim Grierson, Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 2.5/5), Benjamin Mercer (L), Nick Pinkerton (Voice) and Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 3/5). Time Out New York also picks the "25 best Shakespeare-to-screen adaptations."

Updates, 10/27: Anonymous "is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination," writes AO Scott in the NYT. "Apart from that, it's not bad." More from Jen Graves (Stranger), Keith Phipps (AV Club, D+), Mary Pols (Time), Bill Weber (Slant, 1.5/4) and Stephanie Zacharek, who revisits the film at Movieline, where ST VanAirsdale interviews Emmerich.

More lists. Ron Rosenbaum on "10 Things I Hate About Anonymous" at Slate and two lists from Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies: the ten best and ten worst Shakespeare adaptations.

Updates, 10/28: Laura Miller in Salon: "Roland Emmerich's Anonymous is not the first anti-Stratfordian film — see the 2003 documentary Much Ado About Something, which advances the notion that Christopher Marlowe wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare — but it's probably the truest to the cockeyed cause. That is, it shows the same weak grasp of Elizabethan cultural practices and society, the same willingness to contort or ignore inconvenient facts, the same thinly veiled, romantic investment in the British class system and, above all, the same hunger for preposterous, potboiler intrigues." More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 3/5), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), Tom Huddleston (Time Out London, 3/5), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago, 3/5), Wesley Morris (Boston Globe, 2/4) and Dana Stevens (Slate).

For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


William ShakespeareRoland EmmerichTom StoppardJoss WhedonDaily
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.