Shakespeare in Love: Bringing the Bard to Life

A COMEDY ABOUT THE GREATEST LOVE STORY ALMOST NEVER TOLD.

shakespeareinloveLet’s say William Shakespeare knew how to time travel. Let’s say he came to 1998, went to the movies and saw John Madden’s film Shakespeare in Love. Do you think he would disapprove? I believe he would be quite enchanted with what’s unfolding on screen. William Shakespeare never was a living human being to those who grew up reading him in school. But Madden and the screenwriters created a person we can all relate to.

It’s the late 1500s. Young playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) works in the shadow of the brilliant Christopher Marlowe and he’s currently suffering from writer’s block. He simply can’t find the inspiration for his new play, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”. He can’t seem to fix whatever it is that’s wrong. What’s missing is love of course, and Will finds it when he accidentally meets the lovely Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a rich man’s daughter who is set to marry an unpleasant nobleman. Viola becomes Will’s muse and the play virtually writes itself (although the pirate motive fades away), as Will’s theater company begins rehearsal.

But there’s trouble ahead. Women were usually not allowed on stage at this time, but Viola pretends to be a man and lands the part of Romeo in the play; only Will knows the truth. Also, the star-struck lovers’ affair goes against Queen Elizabeth’s (Judi Dench) wishes.

Love for the magic of theater
The filmmakers stay true to “Romeo and Juliet” and end this story in the way it must end, but there is nevertheless quite a romantic epilogue, an open ending that brings Viola a future with endless possibilities. The writers have taken many liberties with Will Shakespeare’s life (Anne Hathaway is barely mentioned) and the film has its moments of broad comedy, but it works. These people seem fairly real and so does the time and place (immensely helped of course by the work of the production and costume designers).

The filmmakers display a love for the magic of theater, channeled through the enthusiasm of Will, Viola and the play’s financier (Tom Wilkinson) whose priorities change during rehearsal. Marc Norman’s collaboration with Tom Stoppard, himself a famous playwright of our time, is probably the reason why the dialogue works so well and why there are so many intelligent and funny observations about the theater and references to the Bard’s body of work. One of them is the take on gender roles, which ought to keep queer theorists busy for a while. Those who are looking for simple entertainment will find it here, but those who are looking for something a little bit more profound will probably also be satisfied. That is a huge accomplishment.

One reason why the central romance works is the performances by Fiennes and Paltrow; they’re both quite sweet, you believe in their love (the music is a key factor), but they do not carry the film. The greatest contributions come from the supporting players – Geoffrey Rush is hilarious as the cowardly impresario and Ben Affleck surprisingly enjoyable as the, in the words of John Madden, “Tom Cruise of its day”. Judi Dench mesmerizes in every one of her (very few) scenes as the all-powerful Queen.

Kenneth Branagh has done a lot to make Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies accessible to young and old alike. Director Madden and the writers made a film in his spirit, and that’s a good thing. This is a vibrant, joyous comedy with a title that says it all – some schoolchildren may consider Shakespeare a nightmare, but there was nevertheless a time when he lived and loved.

Shakespeare in Love 1998-U.S. 122 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by David Parfitt, Donna Gigliotti, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marc Norman. Directed by John Madden. Screenplay: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard. Cinematography: Richard Greatrex. Music: Stephen Warbeck. Editing: David Gamble. Production Design: Martin Childs. Cast: Joseph Fiennes (Will Shakespeare), Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola De Lesseps), Geoffrey Rush (Philip Henslowe), Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Colin Firth… Imelda Staunton, Ben Affleck, Tom Wilkinson. Cameo: Rupert Everett.

Trivia: Julia Roberts, Daniel Day-Lewis and Kenneth Branagh were allegedly all considered for parts in the movie.

Oscars: Best Picture, Actress (Paltrow), Supporting Actress (Dench), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Film, Supporting Actress (Dench), Supporting Actor (Rush), Editing. Golden Globes: Best Film (Comedy/Musical), Actress (Paltrow), Screenplay.

Last word: “I think it was an incredibly exhilarating film to work on. Incredibly challenging. There wasn’t much of a safety net with it. So, I think it has taught me, if it has taught me anything, it’s not to be worried about that. It’s taught me the incredible importance of a script…as if one didn’t know that. What I mean by that is, pushing the script as hard as you can. Interrogating the script as vigorously as you can before you start, so you know, essentially, the film that you’re making before you start making it. It’s taught me, so everlastingly, that you haven’t a bloody clue what’s going to work and what’s not going to work in the end!” (Madden, Hollywood.com)

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