Friday, November 04, 2011

"Anonymous": 400 years before the Internet, the right to speak freely (and with integrity) matters, even if you're not the real Shakespeare

There’s been a lot debated recently about the fundamental right to anonymous speech – and the need to preserve this right to protect a derivative right to political protest, whether the Occupy movement here, or the Arab Spring overseas.  And, as we know, social networking companies have sometimes insisted on users (and, indirectly, authors) using their real identities online; to do otherwise shows a lack of “integrity”.

Imagine this problem 400 years ago.  In the early 17th century, a young earl desperately wants to write and get published – and says that plays written in iambic pentameter come to his head the way quartets came to Beethoven (he actually says “this is possible”).  His ancestors distrust the theater, and literature, any sort of media, really – anything that takes one out of the real world of “politics” and family succession (ratification of other people’s marital sexual intercourse, have you).  His writing was indeed a potential source of “dishonor to his family”.  I know the feeling.

Such is the stuff of Roland Emmerich’s new historical thriller “Anonymous”. It was put out like an independent film at the Toronto Film Festival, but given full studio branding by Columbia Pictures (instead of coming out under Sony Pictures Classics).  The film was produced by Studio Baselberg in Germany (generally associated with larger foreign films) and various facilities in Britain.

Of course, the theory is that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans) wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays (and sonnets and other works), motivated by a desire to provoke criticism of the whole system of privilege into which he had been born.  He was roughly like the “do ask do tell” wisdom-spinner of his day.  And that’s all he wanted – indeed, he dies a pauper.

Along the way a lot happens – the raunchy Globe theater is build, burned, and rebuilt.  In one sequence of court intrigue, famous playwright Ben Jonson  (Sebastian Armesto) is freed from charges of sedition (again – writing can be dangerous!) by de Vere’s money – and in the complications, a young rogue actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) gets to claim credit.  The Will says “writers don’t have time for acting.”  Not true.  That’s like saying composers don’t have time for performing.

The movie is very layered, and the embedded historical plot is very complicated (read the detailed summary on Wikipedia before you go; don’t worry about spoilers).  The film opens with a prologue in modern day New York City with a narrator Derek Jacobi talking in front of a small Broadway audience, and then the historical drama moves back into time, sometimes leading to confusion.

The film does make a plausible case for its thesis (and the tagline “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” seems a bit misleading or at least simplistic).  It might not sit too well with high school English teachers.  I have fond memories of reading “Julius Caesar” (a 1957 MGM film) in tenth grade, “Macbeth”  in twelth (2010, PBS, modernized), and as a “book report”, Hamlet (1996, Columbia).  (I remember that we had to know the "eight parts of the theater" down to the proscenium doors, for our first literature test on Caesar.)  When I was subbing, an English teacher explained the “underage” issue for “Rome and Juliet” (a modernized film in the 90s).  The idea that a commoner with relatively little education had such gifts appeals to us;  the notion that the real author came from the aristocracy would become a spoiler. Nevertheless, I suspect high school English teachers will show this movie (especially when subs work), with detailed road maps as to the real facts.  It will make an interesting BluRay DVD, if accompanied by enough supporting historical details in extras.

Emmerich obviously intends us to ponder the lesson for today’s world, -- about the freedom to speak up and be known for who you are, without the fear of bringing others down.
Here is the official site. This film bears the same relation to Sony's offerings this fall that "Social Network" did in 2010: about free speech, and a kind of revisionist history. (The disclaimers in the closing credits claim the movie is total fiction.)

Wikipedia attribution link for Globe picture  

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