This review will contain spoilers, so if you still want to see the movie and don’t want to know what happens, then read this after you’ve it.
Anonymous is a terrible historical drama, meaning it is so wrongheaded about the historical time period it wishes to portray that the film can not be taken seriously. Like Emmerich’s other costume drama, The Patriot, we get such a perverse reading of historical events that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or be angry. And Emmerich has been strangely silent on The Patriot, as well. There have been many stories in the press about how Anonymousis such a departure from Emmerich’s usual sci-fi/action/disaster fare, yet there is very little talk about how Emmerich has already made a historical drama. But just as The Patriot whitewashes the American Revolution, especially regarding slavery (and demonizes the British military), Anonymous seems to take the opposite approach by muddying the waters, by taking known historical facts and situations and deliberately twisting them to convince the audience that there is an actual authorship controversy.
Besides the major change to history made by Anonymous (that Shakespeare wrote his works), the movie is riddled with the kind of historical errors that made me question whether or not the screenwriter, John Orloff, had ever read or researched anything on the Elizabethan age. Some of the inaccuracies:
- Christopher Marlowe was killed in 1593, but the movie has him alive for years afterwards. The movie also makes a mishmash of chronology in general, so it’s a little hard to figure out in what year things are occurring.
- Marlowe is murdered by Shakespeare, but was actually murdered by Ingram Frazer on May 30, 1593.
- Shakespeare’s theatre is deliberately burned to the ground by soldiers, although the movie doesn’t seem to state which theatre this is. The Globe did burn to the ground, but not until 1613 (and this may be the very reason why we have no manuscripts of Shakesplays). Neither of the other two theatre’s used by Shakespeare’s troupe, The Theatre and The Curtain, ever burned down.
- Richard the Third is performed when Essex tries to lead his rebellion, but it was Richard the Second performed by Shakespeare’s troupe. The film is also wrong about the performance of nearly every Shakesplay featured. Midsummer Night’s Dream could not possibly have been written in the 1560s (?). Julius Caesar comes too late. Henry V too early. And Shakes’ narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, is published near the end of Elizabeth’s life, when it was published much earlier.
- The Earl of Oxford's aversion to the theatre. Lots of aristocrats went to the theatre.
But maybe you think this is all nitpicking. What matters getting dates and details wrong if you get the main narrative story correct? Normally it wouldn’t matter. But when the director has stated that one purpose of the movie is to correct history, to educate people about what really happened, then Anonymous’ historical inaccuracies are more than just ironic, they undermine the film’s position. We get the kind of message that history matters, unless I want to make a point, then I’ll rearrange the places, people and events to suit my own purpose. This is precisely the problem of all the Shakespeare conspiracists: not accepting the historical record and changing it to fit their own agenda.
Next post: why Anonymous is a terrible film about Shakespearean literature