Bottom Line: A many-splendored film.
Directed by: John Madden
Starring: Ben Affleck, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Judi Dench
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…”
–As You Like It, Act II Scene VII
It’s amazing what little is actually known about William Shakespeare, despite the greatly influential playwright he was. Most of what we do know of him, in fact, leads back to his works, for which his life was often inspiration. Had Shakespeare not written Hamlet, we most likely would not know of his only son, Hamnet, who died at the age of eleven. The idea for Shakespeare in Love had been conceived long before its 1998 release. For several years, however, it was merely a question that had been posed regarding Shakespeare’s love life.
Shakespeare in Love is a light, amusing romance, chronicling a fictional (though, again, fully provable) tale of how Romeo and Juliet was written. The year is 1593, and William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has recently discovered his wife cheating. Depressed, Will decides to burn the comedy he is writing (“Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”) as a tragedy. Even now, however, he is stricken with what we know as “writer’s block.” When asked what the tragedy is about, he explains, “It’s about a pirate,” then confesses he has yet to write a single word. Will is still stuck on this non-stage of sorts when Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) commands the performance of his play. Only by sheer serendipity does he then meet the love of his life, Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who inspires practically every word of Romeo and Juliet. Viola is also an aspiring thespian, and he finds her fit for the part of Juliet. This is during the period, however, when a “woman actor” was unheard of. Will strongly objects to this, yet he remains closeting Viola’s appearance onstage, as he is at risk of anything between having his theater shut down and being beheaded.
Shakespeare in Love is a many-splendored thing. I myself am not the slightest fan of Shakespeare, but damn, if they didn’t beautify everything about him. Richard Greatrex’s lavish cinematography idealized the scenery in a grand blend of gold and oak. The set designs give each featured theater a delightfully rich quality, as do the costume designs with representing the nobility of London four centuries ago. Both efforts earned Oscars, and rightfully so. There’s a scene featuring Gwyneth Paltrow eloquently whispering Will’s eighteenth sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). Perhaps to say the sequence is simply beautiful would be an understatement. Save for Robert Sean Leonard’s renditions (Dead Poets Society), Paltrow’s is the most memorable expression I’ve seen.
The performances are a joy. For only eight minutes of total screen time, Judi Dench is especially memorable as the Queen. Her initial appearance marks one of the wittiest moments of the film itself. These scenes feature Dench swiftly dismissing each attempt Paltrow, who just as well delivers a jaw-dropping performance, makes to impress her. Paltrow bows down; Dench snaps, “Stand up straight.” Paltrow breathes, “Your Highness,” as an honorary salute; Dench retorts, “I know who I am.” It’s the condescending tone that is taken to an entirely new level in her character.
Shakespeare in Love is an outstanding and stunningly gorgeous film. The story itself revolves, in part, around how a last-minute production can certainly become a masterpiece. Not only is this unmistakably true (Casablanca was made under the same effect), it’s an irony that Shakespeare himself would much appreciate. This idea is cycled back around in the ending, while also bringing the other half of the plot–Shakespeare’s love with Viola–to a satisfying conclusion.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
–Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II