Movie Review: Anonymous

by Jon N. Hall4/2/19
A Powerful Film Defies the History Books  •  O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. Sorry about the plagiarism there, but I needed a snappy opening for this movie review. No matter, I’m not likely to be sued, whoever the author might be. And there’s the rub — who the devil wrote those lines?

Proponents of the Oxfordian Theory contend they were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Besides this Oxford chap, there’s a plethora of authorship candidates, including Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. But these other guys don’t have a terrific movie going for them, which is our subject: Roland Emmerich’s wondrous Anonymous.

Emmerich had never been on my radar. And if one peruses his IMDb entry, one sees that he’s directed a bunch of lowbrow blockbusters, not the preferred fare of serious folks like the frequenters of this website. However, Emmerich did direct The Patriot (2000) which is a serious flick (here’s a glowing short review of it by David Horowitz).  But regardless of what most of Emmerich’s oeuvre might be, Anonymous is a serious and compelling drama, with moments of high humor.

One family that played an important role, both in history and in our film, was the Cecils. As Puritans, the Cecils had a problem with the theatre, thinking it sinful. William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, was Queen Elizabeth’s principle advisor. William was quite the Machiavellian and had an elaborate plan for the English monarchy. William’s only daughter, Anne Cecil, became the long-suffering wife of Edward de Vere. William’s son, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, succeeded him as advisor to the queen. William is played by the dependable David Thewlis. Anne is played by Helen Baxendale, new to me, who is quite good in her confrontations with her husband. But the big discovery for me was Edward Hogg, who plays Robert Cecil. Although he is effective throughout, where Hogg’s performance is particularly excellent is in the “Big Reveal.”

The Big Reveal begins with Vere in the foreground looking out at the carnage in the courtyard just after Essex’s Rebellion is put down. Sir Robert enters in the far back, and from that point Hogg owns the screen. The scene reveals a shocking bit of business that was not invented out of whole cloth by Emmerich & Co. Rather, it is a variant of the Oxfordian Theory and it’s been around for decades. It’s known as the “Prince Tudor Theory” and alternately as the “Tudor Rose Theory.” If you are not familiar with this theory and want to read up on it before you screen the film, I urge you NOT to do so. See the film first and then study up.

Other than Hogg’s fine acting and the stupefying enormity of the revelation itself, what makes the Big Reveal compelling is the dialog, which is provided by screenwriter John Orloff. (I found a PDF of his screenplay, but notice the URL. What is Orloff’s screenplay doing at a place like WikiLeaks?)

Early in the film, Vere has the playwright Ben Jonson released from jail. Jonson is then taken to Vere’s estate to meet his benefactor. Vere takes Jonson on a stroll through his garden maze:

I enjoyed your little comedy last week, Jonson. You have potential, great potential. […] But its politics did seem to have quite an effect on the Tower. My father-in-law’s men felt it quite seditious. [… It] showed your betters as fools who go through life barely managing to get food from plate to mouth, were it not for the cleverness of their servants. All art is political, Jonson. Otherwise it would just be decoration. And all artists have something to say, otherwise they’d make shoes. And you’re not a cobbler, are you, Jonson?

Vere then nods to his servant Francesco who hands Jonson a play, which Vere wants Jonson to stage under Jonson’s name. Jonson expresses his puzzlement at this strange idea, to which Vere replies:

I cannot very well use my name, can I? I’m the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, Viscount Bolebec, Lord Escales, Sanford, and Badlesmere, et cetera et cetera. No. I have a reputation to protect. In my world, one does not write plays, Jonson. People like you do. […] Well don’t look at me like I just gutted your pet dog, Jonson. I mean to make you the most popular — and therefore the most monetarily successful — playwright in all of London. I wish you Godspeed and good morrow.

Vere abruptly leaves as Francesco drops a bag of money at Jonson’s feet, warning him to keep this arrangement secret or else. There’s just one snag with this little arrangement, it has wounded Jonson’s pride. So when he stages Vere’s play, he doesn’t put his nor anyone else’s name on it. The play, however, is a resounding success. And on opening night with shouts for the playwright to take a bow, an actor in the company, one William Shakespeare, presents himself onstage as the author, and the rest is history.

The Bard often used the device of the play within a play. In Anonymous we get plays within a film, and there are a bunch of them, one of which has the most moving scene in the movie. It’s in that first play that Jonson stages for Vere, when King Harry delivers his rousing St. Crispin’s Day Speech. We only get the end of the speech, but it’s so effective. The following video is set to take 56 seconds. The playgoer watching from the balcony, elegantly acted by Rhys Ifans, is Vere himself:

<iframe width=”600″ height=”337″ src=”″ frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>

What we have here and with the other “plays within the film” are the very first performances of some of the Bard’s greatest plays. The thing that makes this scene from Henry V so powerful is the inspired direction. From the screenplay, we read that Orloff stipulated that: “The actor playing ‘Henry’ kneels at the front of the stage. He speaks to the groundlings as though they are his troops.” But I found no directions for the groundlings to reach for the king. Nor did I read about the overhead shot. So we probably have Emmerich to thank for this splendid bit of stagecraft within cinema-craft.

After Harry exhorts his army on to glory, the battle of Agincourt commences. But the groundlings have become so transfixed by Harry’s oratory, that they enter the fray, even getting on stage to battle the French. It’s a madhouse. This delights Vere, who seems to see the ruckus as confirmation of the power of his play; he exclaims: “Francesco, do you see?  Do you see?”

Sadly, Anonymous made back barely half of the $30 million it cost to make, an index of the demise of taste in the Anglosphere. This was no doubt due to the reception it got from misguided critics and literature/ history scolds who took issue with the theories the film is built upon. Again, please don’t read any reviews and critiques until you’ve seen the film at least once. If you’re not bogged down with theory nor weighted down with what (you think) you know about the Elizabethans, you’ll enjoy Anonymous. It’s out in Blu-ray, by the way, and on cable this Friday (9:13 AM) at Starz.

As for the identity of the Bard, my money’s on Vere.

Jon N. Hall of Ultracon Opinion is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (126 views)

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22 Responses to Movie Review: Anonymous

  1. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    De Vere, not Vere. He was, after all, the Earl of Oxford.

    • Jon N. Hall says:

      Mr. Zu, I thought about that issue when writing, and decided I didn’t care. Do we talk about van Beethoven or just Beethoven? I appreciate the comment, but I wonder if this is really a mistake. Anyhoo, It’d be nice if we got that embedded video embedded.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I am a little surprised that someone who appears to be as particular about language would follow your line of reasoning.

        1. The comparison between Beethoven and de Vere is a bit weak. In Dutch usage, van is most often used to signify that a person is from a particular place and not as a sign of nobility. Van is often dropped from such names. Furthermore, Beethoven has become common usage. Vere has not.

        2. There are numerous Vere’s in English history. So there is a real difference between using Vere and de Vere.

        3. If a historical figure’s name is written de Vere in all the history books, then one would be wise to use de Vere in any piece one writes about that historical figure. At the very least, one avoids possible confusion with other figures.

        4. Finally, perhaps I am too sensitive to English history and the sound of English through the years, but Vere simply does not sound right. Read a historical piece on de Vere and speak it out loud. Then do the same saying Vere. I feel confident you will note the difference.

        • Jon N. Hall says:

          The focus of the articles I’ve written for ST on language have to do with logic; it’s a narrow focus. I don’t think I’m particularly particular about English language usage. But I do take umbrage at the experts who come up with crazy rules they can’t defend.

          But as for the Vere-de Vere controversy, who’s saying it’s wrong to use Vere? and why? Of course, I could have skirted the issue by referring to the Earl as “Oxford.”

          Perhaps the following gives a little justification for my dropping of “de.” Notice the dropping of “von”:

          • Jon N. Hall says:

            Here’s some more on whether it’s okay to drop the “de” after you’ve initially used it, as I did. It’s in the entry for “Names” in GARNER’S MODERN AMERICAN USAGE, and is on page 539 (or 557), where we read:
            D. Names with Particles. Many names contain
            particle prefixes such as al, d’, de, délia,
            der, du, el, la, mac, ten, ter, van, and von. If a
            prefix has been compounded with the remainder
            of the surname,……………
            It goes on for a page and a half. Garner is not infallible, however. The question here should be, does one’s usage create confusion? Somehow, I can’t believe readers could think I was referring to “Starry” Vere. To read the entry online, click on the following, and then scroll up to page 557::::

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I wonder how many people would recognize “Starry” Vere. Come to think of it, I don’t recall his actual first name from Billy Budd.

              • Jon N. Hall says:

                To the left of Click to Edit there’s a countdown of minutes and seconds. What’s that about?

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. My comment above doesn’t have it, but at other times I’ve seen it. I believe it’s a count of how much time you have left to edit, and it goes away when the edit option does.

                Why it’s not always there (or never there), I have no idea.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              The question here should be, does one’s usage create confusion?

              I broached this in my previous comment. However there is more to it than that. Common usage is equally, or in my opinion more, important.

              Do we write:

              Martin Buren
              Jim Mint
              Charles Gaulle
              Cadillac Ville?
              Of course not. Usage requires we include, Van, De, de and de.

              There are instances where the name without the von, de or van is used. This is because the name itself is so famous that it is applied to a specific individual or family such as Bismarck, Beethoven or Habsburg. Such usage does not generally create or add to confusion.

              To my way of thinking, there should not be a question of American or non-American usage. It should be a question of proper vs. improper usage. (I understand there are certain areas where English and American are quite different. I don’t want to go into detail on that.)

              Long ago I read that we Americans do not recognize nobility so we don’t include the von’s, de’s, van’s, etc, etc.

              Such commentary is a political, not a grammatical argument.

              As to the movie, I am curious. Did they refer to him only as “Oxford” or did they use his last name? If they used his last name did they call him “Vere” or “de Vere?”

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                I’m guessing that any concerns I have about correctly denoting the band, Van Halen, or the maker of my favorite frozen fish sticks, Van de Kamp’s, is moot or non-applicable.

                No time to speak more on the subject. I must go make love in my Chevy de Van. I do know, however, that it’s pronounced Baron von Frankenstein.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Thank you Brad, for my laugh of the day.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                But the book and movie title is Frankenstein and the protagonist is Victor Frankenstein. And his creation is Frankenstein’s monster.

                Peter David had a novel about King Arthur running (as Arthur Penn) for Mayor of New York. His campaign treasurer was Percy Vale, his opponent’s campaign manager was Moe Dredd, and his secretary was Gwen De Vere.

              • Jon N. Hall says:

                Mr. Zu,
                I don’t recall if they ever referred to him as “Vere” with no “de” in the flick. But it was a period piece, so they might has tried to be true to the times. I don’t believe you responded to the usage in the BBC link I provided concerning von Stauffenberg (sp?). (see above)

                BUT, is this issue really one of grammar or one of convention?

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                I did not look at the BBC link, thus no response. As to whether it is a matter of grammar or convention; they often overlap.

                As with Bismarck and Habsburg, the name Stauffenberg, is so closely linked with the man and his act that everyone will know who is being referred to.

                I think we have just about exhausted the possibilities of this discussion, thus will bow out. To paraphrase that great lyricist, Ira Gershwin,

                “You say Vere, I say de Vere. Let’s call the whole thing off.”

              • Jon N. Hall says:

                Mr. Zu,

                Well, did you read the GARNER link? Garner says that for French surnames of one syllable, the “de” is retained, as in de Gaulle, but for surnames of more than one syllable, the “de” is often dropped. So I’m the one who provided justification for your quibble. However, I don’t see Garner’s rule as grammar, but rather as just some arbitrary schoolmarmish thing.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Edward De Vere is undoubtedly the favorite among the anti-Stratfordians, and in fact if we were looking for an anonymous author he’d probably be the best guess. There are a lot of interesting connections, as Orson Welles pointed out, including the panegyric to the earl that “his countenance shakes spears”. There are numerous books supporting this theory — which, sadly, I had to leave behind in my house. I think I may even have reviewed one here.

    Whether that’s enough to get rid of the presumption that William Shakespeare (which is not how he spelled his name) wrote the plays is another matter. But if so, how did he come across the obscure Italian work whence Othello came? Would he ever have heard of the Gonzaga family, rulers of an Italian city-state who had a past scandal that shows up in “The Murder of Gonzago”, the inner play in Hamlet?

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      But if so, how did he come across the obscure Italian work whence Othello came?

      Thank you for using “whence” properly. I find it very irritating when people write “from whence.”

      • Timothy Lane says:

        So do I, though it’s a very minor peeve and I generally don’t comment on it. But when your grandmother was an English teacher, you will likely be at least a bit pedantic about the language.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Perhaps I am a bit sensitive as it is similar in German. Woher is German for whence. Wohin is German for whither, but the German words are not archaic sounding like the English ones.

  3. Steve Lancaster says:

    Good review of a good movie. It entertains in a Dan Brown sort of way, or ancient aliens if you prefer. The things we don’t know about Elizabethan England are more than what we do know and these are reasonably well documented times.

    Like all art, the plays and sonnets must be taken a face value; are they good? The writer, poet, musician, sculptor, painter is secondary to the work. The relevant question is does the art reflect the condition/nature of man. I believe it the late Theodore Sturgeon once commented that 90% of everything is crap. I think Theodore was an optimist, but the point is, writing of such power and insight is rare and so much of it is the exception that proves the rule. I don’t care who wrote the plays, even the less good ones have insight into the human condition.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      I believe it the late Theodore Sturgeon once commented that 90% of everything is crap. I think Theodore was an optimist, but the point is, writing of such power and insight is rare and so much of it is the exception that proves the rule.

      Sometime during the 1980s, I saw an interview with Keith Richards in which the interviewer made some comment or asked Richards about the quality of music in the 1980s. It was clear the interviewer held it in low regard.

      I liked Richards’ reply to the effect that just as in the 1960s, 1970s or any other time, 98-99% (I don’t recall the exact no.) of the music being played was rubbish and it always would be. I thought Richards showed a fair amount of intelligence with that answer. I believe it holds true for most of what man does, particularly in the area of art and invention.

  4. David Ray says:

    Why is it that I’m reminded of my poor schooling when I visit this website.

    For what it’s worth, I remedied that short coming by frequenting Richardson Public Library University, but, apparently, with moderate success.

    Liberals enthusiastically inform me of my stupidity, yet I, at times, remind them of their ignorance.
    To wit, Steven expressed his hatred toward Donald Trump’s anti-semitism. I challenged him for a single example. He could provide none. I informed him of Donald’s family. (Oh well. Dr. Prager was called an anti-semite also.)

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