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November 09th 2011 print

James Allan

Anonymous

If, and it’s a moderately big ‘if’, you can put to one side the putrid underlying message or theme of this movie, then this is great watching. 


What’s in a name?


Let’s say you’re the sort of person who deep down has aristocratic leanings. Not for you any nonsense along the lines of plumbers and secretaries making choices as good as or better than those made by well-educated human rights lawyers or Ph.D.s in anti-foundational hermeneutics. You scoff at the famous suggestion that we’d all be better off governed by the first 200 hundred names in the Boston phone book than by the top professors at Harvard University.

You are a person who subscribes unreservedly to the top-down workings of the European Union, where mere voters are given the input they deserve, which is to say next to none at all. You love it when our High Court over-rules the voters on when convicted prisoners can vote or when the electoral rolls must close, or even when it comes close to doing so as regards refugees arriving by boat. Deep down you’re an H.L. Mencken man or woman. You disdain the mere idea of the hoi-polloi and the pretence that genius of any form might emerge from those lacking at least 4 or 5 degrees from top institutions of higher learning.

You’re a snob, if I might put it in more concise terms.

Well, have I got a movie for you. Sure, its production values are superb. The atmosphere it evokes is magnificent. The acting is uniformly wonderful. But all of that is as nothing compared to the underlying allegorical message of this movie Anonymous, which is that only a high born, super-educated, well-connected person could ever produce something as awe-inspiring as, well, the works of Shakespeare.

You see where this is going, right? It wasn’t Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare. No, no, no, no. He was just some hick from the backwater of Stratford-Upon-Avon.  You see, he only had a grammar school education. The actual Shakespeare never travelled in Europe himself; he never had the leisured time to write, not for money, but simply to complete himself, to make himself whole, as every American TV drama assures us is the only virtuous motive for writing anything.

So – and you must stop reading now if you haven’t yet figured out the main strand of the movie’s plot and have some desire to be surprised if you go to see it – what we today call the Works of Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The good Earl did this, apparently, because he was driven to write to fulfil himself and because (in line with countless Hollywood scripts) he heard a voice from within compelling him to do so, not for any base, commercial or tawdry ‘earning a living’ type reasons. (One wonders at this point who really wrote Dickens, but I leave that for another day.)

To make this work this movie Anonymous needs to portray the actual Shakespeare not only as a blackmailer (of de Vere) and mendaciously unfaithful friend (to Ben Jonson), but it also has to imply he is a murderer (of Marlowe). Of course this is plain ridiculous, to say nothing of the unbelievable claim the movie’s plot makes, namely that someone like the actual Shakespeare could read perfectly well (due to that grammar school education one knows full well was a lot more rigorous than most feminist studies doctorates today) but that he was wholly unable to write at all. I’ll say that again. In making the case for de Vere, this movie Anonymous asserts that the actual Shakespeare was totally unable to write. Yes, he could read, and read very well indeed. He just couldn’t write, and never once had to learn in all that time he was getting that grammar school education – presumably he was away absent in those first three or four years at school when students start their educations learning such trifles.

I won’t waste your time reciting all the arguments in all the books for why Shakespeare was Shakespeare – ones such as the bad European geography in the plays, the perfectly good explanation for the ‘second bed to his wife’ in the actual Shakespeare’s will, the plots taken from widely circulating books back then, and more.

In fact I don’t really think the movie is serious in its claims on behalf of de Vere and the ‘born great’ side of the equation rather than the ‘achieve greatness’ side. No, as I said, it’s more like a comforting allegory about the wondrous goodness of the EU, the UN, policy-making via court actions taken by the Julian Burnsides and Geoffrey Robertsons of the world, and really anything where the benighted masses (Nietzsche’s ‘many too many’) know to stay in their place while the cultivated few get on with creating high culture and making good policy choices for the rest of us.

On that basis the ABC, the Greens and the Fairfax Press should love the underlying message.

Now don’t get me wrong in this review. In many ways I thoroughly enjoyed this movie Anonymous. There are scenes from many of my favourite plays; the Elizabethan era manages to come to life; so if, and it’s a moderately big ‘if’, you can put to one side the putrid underlying message or theme, then this is great watching. I liked everything else about it. So this is not meant to be the most unkindest cut of all.

Of course for those of you who are closet aristocrats, there is absolutely nothing not to love in this movie. Indeed, you’ll especially love the underlying message. Hence, if you’re one of them, get your chauffeur to take you to a showing as soon as gold class can fit you in. Or better still, have a private screening at your Noosa estate.