Thursday, November 17, 2011


Here’s how knowing too much about recorded history can totally mind-copulate you when you’re watching Hollywood history.  

In the opening five minutes of Anonymous, a guy with a parcel is chased to the Globe Theatre by soldiers, who set fire to the place in order to drive him out of hiding.  So I see this and think, “Okay, I know where I am now--this is the Globe fire, which happened in 1613.”  A few minutes later, there’s a flashback which says “Five years ago.”  Which to me means 1608.  But.  Elizabeth is still Queen, which means we’re still somewhere before 1603, when she died.  And. Essex hasn’t rebelled yet, so we’re somewhere before February of 1601, when he was executed.  And.  We’re in the Rose Theatre with, among others, Christopher Marlowe in the audience, so this is actually taking place somewhere before May 1593, which is when Marlowe was killed in Deptford--and which is when I start laughing so loud the people around me start shushing me.  All while my poor brain is going: “Why are you copulating with me, Hollywood?”

HOLLYWOOD:  Because that’s what I do.
MY BRAIN:  Oh--right--how silly of me to have forgotten.  So where the intercourse are we?

Honest answer?  In hell, if you know anything about Elizabethan theatre.  Or Elizabethan history.  The movie is ostensibly about how Shakespeare didn't write a thing, he was just the beard for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), a theory first proposed by a fellow named Thomas Looney.  (Heh.)  In the film, Oxford writes Midsummer Night's Dream when he's 11 (which makes him the theatrical equivalent of Mozart), has an affair with Queen Elizabeth when he's 18 or so, and somewhere between 1593 and 1604 (when the real DeVere dies), decides that since words have power, he will determine who succeeds Elizabeth as ruler of England by having his plays performed in front of the London mob, which will then do whatever he wants them to do.  Or something.  Frankly, the plot goes back and forth in time so often that the really ridiculous stuff, like the fact that Queen Elizabeth spends half her reign littering the English countryside with her bastard sons, is actually entertaining, in a Lizzy Does Dallas kind of way.  And there's something to be said for compressing the events of ten or fifteen years into five years of screen time; God knows Shakespeare did it all the time.  Or--excuse me--whoever wrote Shakespeare did it all the time.

But watching the movie is killing me; by the end of it, I'm lying on the theatre floor like some scholarly version of Colonel Kurtz, only instead of muttering "The horror! The horror!" I'm moaning "The details! The details!"  There are bare floors everywhere, which is totally wrong--floors in Elizabethan London were either covered with rugs, or covered with rushes.  Nobles did not sit in box seats while watching plays; nobles sat on stools at either side of the stage.  Julius Caesar was never done at The Rose, it was done at The Globe, and it sure as hell wasn’t done with Marlowe in the audience.  Essex wears red when he’s executed.  (Wrong--he famously wore black.  Like Hamlet.)  Richard III is performed before the Essex Rebellion, instead of Richard II.  And nobody--NOBODY--alive in the whatever copulating year we’re talking about between 1593 and 1616 would EVER react to the sight of Richard on stage with a shocked expression and the words: “He’s playing him . . . as a HUNCHBACK.”

ME: [yelling at the screen]  Of course he’s being played a hunchback; he WAS a hunchback!
THEATRE AUDIENCE:  Please--this is a movie, it’s not history.  It’s real, okay?
ME:  God help me.

But that's still not the funniest line.  The funniest line is when de Vere's wife walks in on him while he's scribbling blank verse in his study and looks at him with a shocked and mortally offended expression on her face and says:

DE VERE'S WIFE:  My God!  You're . . . WRITING again.

-- in just the same tone of voice that a strait-laced mother would use when finding her son in the bathroom with a copy of Playboy.  Now THAT'S comedy!

One thing the movie does get right?  Ink stains.  I've always thought that Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson, all had ink stains on their writing hands.  This is not an age when soap was either in common use or sufficiently strong enough to remove stains.  The fact that De Vere has a heavily ink stained writing hand, and that Shakespeare, to prove himself a writer, dips his fingers in ink before appearing in public, is a clever touch.

But one clever touch is like a single pure couplet in a poem where nothing else comes close to rhyming.  The film is a hilarious mess, and ridiculous long before (wait for it) royal incest rears its ridiculous head.  Never more so than when it deals with the subject of writing.  Bad enough that the De Vere authorship theory says that plays are actually poems which are written in the study, and only incidentally performed on the stage.  Bad enough that, as a major plot point, the act of writing is looked on as something ten times worse than, say, littering the English countryside with Tudor bastards.  In true Hollywood fashion, this film shows total contempt for writers and the written word, just like the de Vere authorship theory shows total contempt for the very idea that an actor with a grammar school education could write something like King Lear. Thankfully, in true Hollywood fashion, the movie itself is a copulating mess.

And by the way.  The next time time somebody says "No manuscript copy of Shakespeare's plays has ever come down to us," just say "No manuscript copy of Dante's Inferno has ever come down to us," or "No manuscript copy of Moby Dick has ever come down to us either." 

Or just show them this:


Anonymous said...

Won't be rushing to see this then. Should have got Tom Stoppard to write a complete send up.

Molly said...

HILARIOUS review, the film industry should be so lucky as to have so many laughs in one piece of writing. I was worried I'd be furious watching this film, so put it off. Now I cannot WAIT to see it for the oxygenating power of laughter.

Molly said...

Oh wait. Writing. That's the thing Hollywood has issues with, I remember now. I was laughing so hard I missed it!

Stewartry said...

Well said. Watching this thing I had a very hard time trying decide whether I found it insulting or hilarious.

Funnily, the one and only troll my blog has ever attracted was to my review. (