movie review by
Gary Johnson

Shakespeare in Love


(©1998 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.)

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Much of William Shakespeare's life remains a mystery. Most scholars agree that he was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1554 and that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, but about the details of his life, we know precious little.

In 1593 Shakespeare wrote some of his most erotic sonnets, and soon afterwards, in 1594, he wrote one of the world's greatest romantic tragedies, Romeo and Juliet. But what was the impetus for this influx of romance into his writing? Did a real-life muse influence Shakespeare's art?

This "what-if" situation provides the basis for Shakespeare in Love, a comical and irreverent look at the personal life of a young, struggling playwright who just happens to be working on a play entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Or at least theater owner Philip Henslowe hopes Shakespeare is working on the play: he has given him an advance payment and the rehearsals are set to begin soon. But it seems that Will is suffering from writer's block. In fact, the title is all that he has thus far, and even the title needs some obvious work. Will needs a muse, but where can you find a muse when you need one?

Screenwriters Tom Stoppard (who also scripted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and Marc Norman have taken this situation as their beginning point as they weave a wildly imaginative yarn with a strong contemporary flavor. The story itself might be set in Elizabethan period England, but many of the concerns are the same ones we face nowadays. Commercialism constantly threatens to undermine the artistic endeavors. (For example, theater owner Henslowe isn't concerned with art. He just wants a good, audience-pleasing play, preferably with a dog.) Feuds abound between playwrights and theaters. And children prefer plays that contain liberal doses of blood.

As the movie's title indicates, Norman and Stoppard have taken a mischievous slant on the material. They rip back the veil shrouding Shakespeare's life and reveal the human side of his character. That's maybe the most enjoyable part of this movie: we see Shakespeare walking down the street when he hears a salesman giving a pitch from a street corner--"A rose by any other name…"--and you can see the gears start turning in Shakespeare's mind. Instead of giving us a genius who delivers ideas fully formed, the filmmakers allow us to see the world that this fictional Shakespeare inhabited and how it may have influenced his art--as when Shakespeare meets Christopher Marlowe (the era's premier playwright) in a tavern and Marlowe starts throwing out ideas for Shakespeare's play. Soon he begins reeling off large chunks of what will in fact become the plot of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the filmmakers don't necessarily mean for us to take any of this very seriously. It's all a big "what if…" Yet while the results are irreverent, the results are also respectful. Norman and Stoppard have brushed away the iconic encrustations and created a Shakespeare with emotions and concerns just like anyone else.

The filmmakers also tease the audience with scenes that contain hints of anachronisms. For example, when Shakespeare struggles with writer's block, he visits a necromancer and lies down on what looks suspiciously like a psychiatrist's couch while he explains his problems. And in another scene, while chasing the woman of his dreams, Shakespeare jumps into a boat and orders the oarsman to "Follow that boat!" The filmmakers are clearly having great fun with the material and the actors are relishing the opportunity to inject some new life into the old icons.

The plot itself gives us Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps. Viola wants to act on stage, but during the Elizabethan period, only men could perform on stage. So in order to fulfill her ambition, Viola disguises herself as a boy and auditions for a part in the new Shakespeare play (although it's hard to believe anyone would mistake her for a boy). When Will hears her perform, he becomes so moved by her acting--"Where did you learn that?" he yells--that he rushes to meet her/him. However, his zeal scares Viola and she runs from the theater, afraid that he might discover her secret. But he discovers where she lives and through his persistence he discovers her identity--and immediately falls in love. She becomes his muse, and soon words start to flow from his pen. His relationship with Viola becomes entangled with the writing of Romeo and Juliet, and soon Will stands below Viola's bedroom, yelling for her attention--while Viola, oblivious to his efforts, recites lines from the play: "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?"

Much of the credit for the success of Shakespeare in Love rests in the casting. The role of Will Shakespeare required not just the qualities of a romantic lead; it required someone who could convince the audience that he was capable of writing magnificent plays. It required someone who possessed an interior quality and a natural intelligence. But at the same time, the lead must also have a flair for comedy. It's a tough combination of characteristics, but Joseph Fiennes meets this criteria. He doesn't particularly know how to play broad comedy. But that's part of the charm of the movie: while Will Shakespeare is intense and prone to brood, the rest of the world he inhabits is soaring off in so many different directions that his intensity becomes humorous. (Fiennes also starred in the equally excellent Elizabeth.)

Fiennes is surrounded by an excellent cast. Geoffrey Rush (of Shine) plays theater owner Philip Henslowe--a theater owner "with a cash flow problem." Tom Wilkinson plays Hugh Fennyman, an unscrupulous moneylender whose hard exterior turns to putty as he becomes stagestruck. Colin Firth plays the Earl of Wessex, who hopes to arrange a marriage of convenience with Viola (an arrangement that will net him an impressive dowry and give social status to her family). Judi Dench (who played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown) plays Elizabeth I, a feisty queen who loves the theater. And Ben Affleck plays Ned Alleyn, an actor who joins the cast of Shakespeare's new play, assuming he will play the lead. However, as Shakespeare writes the play, Alleyn finds his character disappearing from the stage--"for the length of a Bible!" he shouts.

Directed by John Madden (who also directed Mrs. Brown), Shakespeare in Love is a wonderfully inventive and fanciful creation filled with mistaken identities, mixed-up messages, and misbegotten desires. It's one of the year's best movies.