Winner '98:
First Saw It:
Shakespeare in Love
January 1999, at the Sony Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA
Bridesmaids: Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
My Vote: The Thin Red Line is one of the best movies the Academy ever nominated
Overlooked: Velvet Goldmine, The Truman Show, Primary Colors

Shakespeare in Love

Director: John Madden. Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Tom Wilkinson, Jim Carter, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton, Rupert Everett, Antony Sher, Martin Clunes. Screenplay: Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

Photo © 1998 Miramax Films
"What fools these mortals be," says Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and indeed the world seems to be going a little foolish for Shakespeare in Love. I fully understand their effusion; John Madden's first film after the stately but exceptionally closed-off Mrs. Brown is as lively and engaging a comedy as one could want from the inspired material, a love story set in and around the Rose Theatre. A young upstart playwright named Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is having a rotten time pouring his poetic thoughts on to paper. Will confides to his "apothecary" psychiatrist, Dr. Moth (Antony Sher, one of two Mrs. Brown stars making a sly cameo here), that he believes his writer's block to stem from the frustrations of having had no sexual escapades for quite some time.

Of course, this is Shakespeare here, so he can't just come out and say that. Clue #1 to his troubles is that "will" in the Renaissance actually meant "sexual urges," just in the way we take it to mean "intention" or "conviction"; right off the bat, then, you know the guy is one lusty but pent-up tamale. Also, he speaks of a "broken quill" and a "dry organ," and we in the audience titter at realizing (or remembering, depending on your familiarity with the Bard) that Shakespeare was all over this stuff centuries before Freud was a glimmer in his mother's id. A great pleasure of this script is its ceaseless attention to Shakespearean turns of phrase and its loving revival of his own bawdy humor. By inserting him as a character in a frothy romantic comedy, the filmmakers also rescue Shakespeare from Masterpiece Theatre dehydration and remind us all that beneath it all, the poet of Avon was one dirty dog. The script's later revelation—that this lasciviousness was itself a put-on, a mode of speaking and acting that clothed delicate and unironically robust emotion—is equally true of the historical Shakespeare, and more importantly, provides the foundation for a rich and involving romantic comedy.

The start of the picture is fresh and buoyant, though it must be said of the first twenty or thirty minutes that the script is a tad more focused on trotting out its clever jabs than with plunging (see how easy that is?) into the story's romantic center. One cannot deny that Shakespeare in Love—co-written by Marc Norman and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead author Tom Stoppard—is a witty piece of work; the puns and cannily contemporary jokes are enough to keep the exposition moving, even if it does feel a little self-consciously heady for the first stretch. Besides the way-ahead-of-his-time psychiatrist, we are treated to Geoffrey Rush as the manager of the Rose, as put upon and financially terrified as Hollywood studio agents in the modern day; a teasing/tense barroom encounter between Shakespeare and rival playwright Christopher Marlowe (My Best Friend's Wedding's Rupert Everett); and the image of the West's undisputedly greatest playwright unable to scrawl anything on his vellum sheets but his signature, over and over. Hey, who hasn't been there? You do begin to wonder, though, after a few of these scenes have passed—and after the second or third mention of Shakespeare's upcoming opus, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter—if Norman and Stoppard will deliver to their sterling cast anything but one-liners and English major in-jokes.

The tone and the pitch of Shakespeare in Love, however, change significantly—and beautifully—with the arrival of Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola de Lesseps, a woman of the upper class who has no greater love than the theater, and who probably qualifies as Shakespeare's first groupie. Shakespeare becomes aware of Viola during a theatrical production mounted for the pleasure of Queen Elizabeth herself, played by Judi Dench in a delightful about-face from her perpetual scowl as Madden's Queen Victoria. (Well, actually, she still scowls a lot, but at least she says funny things and allows us the chance to laugh. Often.) Viola wants nothing more than to be in one of Shakespeare's plays, even though women were not allowed on the Elizabethan stage; all the female parts were played by boys in heavy costume.

Undeterred and, not coincidentally, as headstrong as the Viola later created by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, Paltrow decides to don a convincing-enough boy's outfit and audition for a role. Her hearty recitation of Shakespeare's own work wins her the part; it cannot be (and is not) long before the two are romping about her bedroom, willfully blind (har har, I'm at it again) to her upcoming marriage to that fictional paragon of Elizabethan aristocracy, Lord Wessex. Because Wessex is played by Colin Firth—familiar as the husband cuckolded by that other Fiennes brother (remember him?) in The English Patient—you can tell there's nothing really wrong with Wessex except that he doesn't, well, compose sonnets about his lady love. Nothing Wessex says is likely to be repeated in golden, dulcet tones by centuries of performers, and one of the central conceits of Shakespeare in Love is that the verbal gifts for which we still cherish the plays and poems were also a crazy aphrodisiac for the one woman around who already hung on Shakespeare's every word.

If Viola loves Will's words even more than his "quill," she shares that preference in common with the filmmakers, who never tire of their wordplays and verbal acrobatics even as the love story blossoms into the film's main attraction. As in Shakespeare's own comedies, the passion ignited between Viola and Will unfolds despite a shocking lack of preceding friendship or even any full or long-term acquaintance. It happens, ostensibly, because they are two souls with a unique affinity: Viola loves language so much that she automatically falls for a man who feels as deeply about it as she does, and can even create it in her honor. Here, Norman and Stoppard get themselves in a little bit of trouble, though, because it is never quite clear that Viola holds any attraction for Shakespeare except the obvious flattery of her own smittenness and the equally obvious allure of Gwyneth Paltrow. The actress beams as brightly as we always knew she could but has rarely allowed to in oppressive schlock like Great Expectations and A Perfect Murder. After those two films, this is the third in 1998 that offers Paltrow as an artist's unique, irreplaceable muse; while that story structure may soon wear out its welcome—how many paintings, poems and plays about Gwyneth does the world really need??—she radiates such poise, warmth, and loveliness that no one in the film or watching it can fail to grasp the attraction.

Still, shouldn't the inspiration for the greatest love poems and romantic tragedies of all time be something a little more than—well, beautiful? Shouldn't the playwright respond to something deeper than a woman's love of his own plays? I feel sour and uncertain asking these questions, for two principal reasons. One, just speaking practically, is that there is no reason to expect Shakespeare's inspiration (should such a figure be imagined) to be a brainy beauty or well-rounded individual. Literature of all countries and eras, including the Bard's, has found its muse in the beguiling image of women (Dante's Beatrice, Helen of Troy) who were above all voluptuous and alluring, their other faculties irrelevant by comparison. Also, the boudoir clenches between Paltrow and Fiennes—who works infinitely better here as a goofy sex symbol than as a "swarthy" one in Elizabeth—are so infectious that it seems pedantic to complain.

But I do have minor reservations to voice, because Shakespeare in Love is deliberately founded on its contemporary sensibility to Elizabethan conventions; it follows to me that Viola should have more contemporarily appealing virtues of mind and personality to recommend her to us, and I don't think the mere device of her "trailblazing" urge to act on stage is strong enough assurance that she is a woman like no other. The "great romance" of Shakespeare in Love is actually much closer to a lusty cavort, though a rollicking and swoon-worthy romp it is.

Of course, the engagement to Wessex will draw near, the charade of Viola's stage-persona will be exposed, and somehow, at least momentarily, all of it will still be pushed aside for the romance to head in the direction our blissed-out expectations demand. Shakespeare in Love dutifully follows all the courses of the modern romantic comedy without selling out to them entirely and giving us a pat ending unworthy of the picture. I also liked how many of the supporting roles in the picture, particularly the financier Fennyman (played by Tom Wilkinson of The Full Monty), grow both funnier and more moving as the picture continues. Dench also has some nice moments at the picture's end that are moving and well-played...even if it's outrageous to surmise that Queen Elizabeth would ever have said such things as she does here. (Neither Dench nor Cate Blanchett have come close to supplanting my favorite on-screen Elizabeth, that played by Quentin Crisp in Sally Potter's Orlando).

The most exquisite sequence of Shakespeare in Love—and perhaps this should be no surprise—is the rendition of Romeo and Juliet finally premiered to a rapt audience toward the picture's close. Fiennes and Paltrow, in the lead roles of that performance, use the drama to exorcise their own great sadness at foreseeing the end of their affair. Shakespeare should really have gotten screenwriting credit for this project, since so many of the picture's greatest effects rely on or spring from his inimitably beautiful words. Shakespeare in Love makes you joyously happy that previously-planned starring duos (Kenneth Branagh and Winona Ryder at one point, Daniel Day-Lewis and Julia Roberts at another) gave way to two fresh-faced luminaries whose youth becomes as poignant in the last scenes as it is elsewhere invigorating. There's no question by the end of the film what magic Paltrow and Fiennes have worked in making this script seem so sparkling and un-lofty. (It helps that their clothes, designed to perfection by the infallible Sandy Powell, are so beautiful that you almost hate the moments when the lovers take them off.)

Shakespeare in Love is a confection, and not necessarily one that I expect will endure as more than a jaunty love letter to more substantial works of art. In fact, given Richard Greatrex's staid cinematography and the well-proven talents of the cast, one almost wonders if the material might have been better served on stage. It does seem like a distinctly theatrical piece, though David Gamble's shrewd editing keeps the whole thing moving along—and beyond that, its existence on film allows many more people to see it than ever would were it played out on the boards. I would have liked a few more glimpses of Viola before she meets Will, or of her life outside the theatre even after the two become acquainted; heck, a few lines of dialogue that weren't just fawning adorations of Fiennes might also have been welcome. As it is, entire passages in this picture might more properly be entitled Viola in Love. Still, comedies rarely come as tightly constructed and as generous of spirit as this one, and even rarer is the trick of getting funnier and richer as a comic film goes on. Shakespeare in Love's labors are never in danger of being lost, for both our hearts and our brains may take great pleasure in this breezy, radiant entertainment. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: John Madden
Best Actress: Gwyneth Paltrow
Best Supporting Actress: Judi Dench
Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush
Best Original Screenplay: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard
Best Cinematography: Richard Greatrex
Best Art Direction: Martin Childs; Jill Quertier
Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell
Best Film Editing: David Gamble
Best Original Score (Musical/Comedy): Stephen Warbeck
Best Sound: Robin O'Donoghue, Dominic Lester, and Peter Glossop
Best Makeup: Lisa Westcott & Veronica McAleer

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: John Madden
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Gwyneth Paltrow
Best Supporting Actress: Judi Dench
Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush
Best Screenplay: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard

Other Awards:
Berlin Film Festival: Silver Bear for Outstanding Single Achievement (Norman & Stoppard)
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actress (Paltrow); Best Ensemble
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Screenplay
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Dench)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress (Dench); Best Film Editing
Satellite Awards: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)

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