SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)
Few films have been as derided for winning Best Picture as Shakespeare in Love has. Apart from The Greatest Show on Earth, I do not know of a film that has caused so much consternation about how it was 'the wrong film'. In the twenty years since its win, has time been softer to our tale of literary inspiration and romance?
After a second look, I find that Shakespeare in Love is fluff, but very pretty and delightful fluff, with no interest in historical accuracy. Partially a dumbed-down take on The Bard, partially a commentary on the struggles of making 'art' in a commercial world, Shakespeare in Love is a nice little diversion with bits of his immortal dialogue.
Our young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is having a bit of writer's block. He is pressed into writing a comedy, Romeo & Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter by Rose Theater impresario Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), who is badly in debt to Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson). A successful play could not just Henslowe out of debt but give Will enough money to break out on his own.
In between his amorous adventures and his struggles with Romeo & Ethel, he finds time to attend a royal command performance of a variety show of sorts for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench). Like most in the audience, Gloriana would prefer to laugh, but one in the audience is enthralled with Shakespeare's text.
Lady Viola De Lessups (Gwyneth Paltrow) loves poetry and rich language. She does not love Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), who loves her family's money more than he loves her, though she's pretty enough. She also dreams of taking to the stage to recite those words, but as a woman this is forbidden.
This is why Viola dons drag and becomes 'Thomas Kent', wowing Will with 'his' acting talent. The rehearsals for Romeo & Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter continue, and soon Will discovers that 'Thomas Kent' is really a pretty young virgin named Viola.
They quickly consummate their affair, and from their passion the words spring to life. The promised ribald comedy soon starts becoming more romantic and action-packed, but things begin to take a darker turn.
When presented at Court, Viola dares suggest that a play can speak of true love, which Queen Elizabeth I seems unconvinced of. Her Majesty reluctantly approves of Wessex's choice of bride, but tells him she already knows of the pleasures of the flesh. Good Queen Bess also makes a wager with Wessex on whether a play can speak of love with truth.
Things become more complicated when in a case of mistaken identity Will's frenemy Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe (Rupert Everett) is killed and Viola discovers Will is married. Their romance is doomed, especially since Lady Viola must marry Wessex and go with him to the new colony of Virginia.
The doomed love affair sets Will to write more of a tragic love story. Things take a worse turn when it is discovered that "Thomas Kent" is really a woman, forcing Viola off the stage. When Romeo & Juliet finally debuts, the cross-dressing star-crossed lovers along with the Royal Wager collide.
Circumstances force Will to play Romeo and Viola to play Juliet. Elizabeth I, unexpectedly appearing at the theater, decrees that Romeo & Juliet does bring the story of true love on the stage, that 'Thomas Kent's' appearance is extraordinarily like that of a woman (knowing perfectly well it is a woman), and that Lord Wessex does indeed have a legal wife who must obey him. She also commissions a 'more cheerful' play, something for Twelfth Night.
As our lovers part, Shakespeare is inspired to write a new work, one about a beautiful girl named Viola, who is forced to dress as a man and is shipwrecked.
Again, nothing in Shakespeare in Love should be taken literally or as historically accurate. In fact, just about everything in it seems geared to be more about today with the trappings of ye olden times. It's not a history lesson, but by no means a spoof.
That is where part of the joy comes from: the fact that it is so gleefully anachronistic. From the 'souvenir of Stratford-upon-Avon' mug to Will checking in with the medieval version of a therapist, Shakespeare in Love uses the historic figures within it to have a few laughs.
Moreover, Shakespeare in Love really is more about the perpetual difficulty of the act of creating. The pressure to please an audience ("Love and a bit with a dog; that's what they want", Shakespeare is advised). The struggle to endure the money men. The threat of censorship. The endless audition process. The fear of being 'dried up'. Picking up useful tips from others and the world around you. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's screenplay showcases the never-ending ups and downs of being a writer.
As a side note, Shakespeare enduring actor after actor reciting Marlowe's "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" monologue over and over again reminded me of American Idol or The Voice, where aspiring singers, even good ones, replicate the same song over and over again, imitating the original rather than being original with the material.
In terms of story, Shakespeare in Love is witty, pleasant, with many in-jokes. Some will be clear: Will makes a mental note of 'a pox on both their houses' when he hears a minister rail against theaters. Some are a bit more opaque: not being up on Jacobean theater, the fascination a young John Webster (Joe Roberts) has with gore and gruesomeness escaped me.
I am always surprised that Joseph Fiennes did not become a bigger star thanks to Shakespeare in Love, let alone be one of the Academy Award nominations the film received. He is blessed with great beauty, his eyelashes and flawless features making it more than plausible that he would have Viola doubly enthralled with his words and looks.
However, Fiennes had a remarkable manner with both the comic and dramatic aspects of Shakespeare. He could be amusing one moment, heartfelt the other, without losing that delicate balance. I would argue that at times his romantic ardor was a bit much but I'm a forgiving type. Imelda Staunton was also quite delightful as the Nurse, both supportive and shocked by her mistress' antics.
It is some of the others that I found more puzzling. Dench does not get involved in the plot until an hour into the film, but she is commanding as Good Queen Bess, sharp-tongued and yet wise, a woman who knows the struggle of being in a man's world. Still, it's such a small role that it veers on a cameo.
Firth to my mind seemed to think he was in a broader comedy than Shakespeare in Love was, which is why his efforts to be villainous did not strike me as believable. Rush did nothing more than look perpetually flustered and befuddled, and while that was the role I don't see anything really memorable. I fantasized about Rush and Wilkinson switching roles, to see how they would have played them.
Paltrow has come under fire for winning Best Actress in the succeeding years. I won't say it's a horrible performance, and she is pretty. However, at times there is a blankness in her that makes one not quite believe she'd be so passionate about Shakespeare's words, let alone inspire his sonnets.
As a side note, it does seem now rather curious to think the film promotes Paltrow and Ben Affleck (in a small role as the actor Ned Alleyn) as the ideal to play the epitome of 'great actors'. Just a thought.
Shakespeare in Love is sumptuous, a real treat. Under director John Madden, with beautiful sets and costumes and Stephen Warbeck's memorable score, the film does what it set out to do. It told a light tale in the vein of Shakespeare with gender-bending, mistaken identities, passionate romance and yes, even a dog. It may all be historically wrong, but Shakespeare in Love is not about history. It's about love and comedy.
What fools indeed...
1999 Best Picture: American Beauty