Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Director: John Madden
Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson
Shakespeare in Love is an exceptionally enjoyable film (though whether it deserved to win Best Picture in a year with Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful is very debatable). Oddly enough, 1998 saw Joseph Fiennes playing Shakespeare while simultaneously playing Robert Dudley in Elizabeth alongside Geoffrey Rush playing theatre-owner Henslowe and Francis Walsingham. A good Elizabethan year for them both, I presume. (FYI some spoilers in the review I’m afraid…)
The movie is a romantic comedy that follows struggling playwright Will Shakespeare, suffering from penury, romantic loss, and one of the better cases of writer’s block set to film. Having sold a yet unwritten play to both Henslowe’s Rose Theatre and Burbage’s Curtain, Shakespeare must re-discover his muse, while simultaneously penning the epic Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Meanwhile Viola de Lessops (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy merchant’s daughter, disguises herself as a man (Thomas Kent) in order to audition for Shakespeare’s new work. The playwright follows the “actor” back to the de Lessop household and crashes the party being given for Lord Wessex, where he espies Viola (resuming her role as herself) dancing and is immediately smitten.
Inspired, he begins to write again and, as the play progresses, so does Shakespeare’s infatuation with Viola, which deepens into an affair when he discovers that she and Thomas Kent are one and the same.
Eventually Shakespeare discovers Viola is to be married to Lord Wessex, and Viola discovers that the playwright already has a wife waiting in Stratford, a very Shakespearean back and forth ensues that culminates in the performance of the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet at the Curtain when Viola is forced to step into the role of Juliet when circumstances require it. Alas, the fates are destined to part the tragic lovers, with Viola married off to Lord Wessex and gone to the New World and Virginia. Shakespeare, however has re-inspired his muse and sets forth to write Twelfth Night.
Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.
Overall this is a vastly more enjoyable look at Shakespeare than Anonymous was, although with its historical or literary accuracy served in broad strokes. It is fun, light-hearted and soulful by turns, with more respect for the characters and the setting than Anonymous ever cared to display. It feels more Shakespearean and in tune with the Bard’s work. The acting is solid with both Paltrow and Fiennes offering superb work in their respective roles, supported by a vast array of excellent character actors that, oddly enough, includes Ben Affleck as Edward Alleyn, the premier actor in the Admiral’s Men. Affleck delivers what was my favourite line:
William Shakespeare: You, sir, are a gentleman.
Ned Alleyn: And you, sir, are a Warwickshire shithouse.
So what is inaccurate? Much, but more in realism than in approach. The film is set in 1593, which does fit with the timelines of when Romeo and Juliet was estimated to have been written and performed. Kit Marlowe did die in a Deptford tavern brawl in 1593 (knife through the eye in a dispute over the bill, although he was also, at the time, hanging about with several of Francis Walsingham's agents, so read into that what you will...), so the film gets its major key facts correct. Despite the ostensibly setting and era Shakespeare has a souvenir mug from Stratford-upon-Avon sitting on his shelf, and consults a doctor/astrologist/psychologist for advice on how to re-ignite his literary passions. These type of clever references abound and anyone with a knowledge of Shakespeare’s works will have an enjoyable time picking out all the many references and in-jokes.
As an added bonus, apparently the film is now in the process of being converted to a stage play, so the circle is now complete...
In sum, Shakespeare in Love is a witty, engaging and energetically fun film, and highly recommended!
Tomorrow, The Other Boleyn Girl