Saturday, October 20, 2012

Anonymous -- the power and truth of words

Director: Roland Emmerich, 2011. (PG-13)  

The premise of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous is that another, an anonymous writer, authored all of William Shakespeare’s works. Rather in this rewriting of history, Shakespeare (Rafe Spall, Hot Fuzz) is a drunkoon buffoon who cannot even write his own name.

The movie starts in present day New York. An actor (Derek Jacobi, himself a prominent thespian who has clothed himself in many Shakespearian roles) walks onto stage and states that what most hold as fact is going to be called into question: Shakespeare did not pen his works. The play then transforms into a period piece full of intrigue and betrayal. And with that, Emmerich moves the film back into the 1600s.

The theory is that Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans, Elizabeth: the Golden Age), Earl of Oxford actually wrote the plays but could not use his own name since the content was politically infused. So he contacts Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), a writer, and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: freedom from the Tower and cash to comply. But Johnson’s hesitation results in Shakespeare’s opportunity and the rest is history . . . at least in this film.

Emmerich has a super cast of British actors. Vanessa Redgrave (Letters to Juliet) as Queen Elizabeth and David Thewliss (HarryPotter and the Order of the Phoenix) as William Cecil stand out. But herein lies the main problem with the film: too many characters. There are so many to keep track of that the intrigue is confusing. It does not help that Emmerich throws in flashback time after time without really explaining who the younger characters are and how they relate to the main plotline. And then there are too many intrigues, involving nobility, claims to the throne, royal affairs, and blue-blooded bastards. It feels like a pre-modern version of last year’s remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. Like that film, the complexity simply asks too much of the viewer and interest starts to lag early into the second act.

Despite the tedium of the intrigue, a theme emerges: the power of words. Oxford realizes that his power is in not in his sword, but in his pen. By putting pen to paper, when the plays are performed in public the populace recognize the political references and opinion is swayed.

The power of words is a biblical truth, too. Jesus says, in his final sermon, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35). The words of Christ, red-lettered in many Bible versions, are viewed as of critical import to his followers world-wide. Moreover, the Bible tells us: “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) The power of the Bible is carried in the power of its words, since “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).

More than this, though, the power of the biblical words resides in the Word. The gospel of John opens with these words (Jn. 1:1-4): 
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The Word refers to Christ pre-incarnate. Before he was born as the God-man Jesus, he was the second person of the Trinity. In Greek philosophy the Logos (i.e. word) was a divine intermediary. John carried that concept over and used it to describe the truth of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). As fully God, Jesus embodies all the power of the Godhead, the power that set the worlds in motion, that created the universe ex nihilo. He embodies the power that brought Lazarus back from the dead (Jn. 11:43-44). That same power transforms believers from death to life, and gives us the power (through the indwelling Holy Spirit) to live holy lives.

But back to Shakespeare’s words. Were they his, and we have been taught in high school and beyond? Yes they were. The ridiculous claims by Emmerich have been put down by numerous experts. In one article in the St.Louis Post-Dispatch, various Shaekspeare experts chimed in. Robert Henke, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University, says: 
The Oxford theory requires about half of London to have been in on a conspiracy to protect the Earl from being tainted with the disreputable profession of the theater. Oxfordians must also address the unfortunate fact that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, before eleven of Shakespeare's plays, including 'King Lear,' 'Macbeth,' 'Antony and Cleopatra,' and 'The Tempest' (the latter with very pointed references to events that took place in 1609) were written.
And in a review in the Harvard Political Review, John Pulics comments on one of the scenes in the move: “Shakespeare murders Christopher Marlowe because after he discovers the true author when, in reality, Marlowe died in a duel. The divergences from already established facts become more and more base, to the point that anyone versed in Shakespearian knowledge could not accept the film’s argument.”

Words are powerful. Jesus’ words are true. This movie’s words and premise plainly are not.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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