The Best of Pictures: Shakespeare in Love (1998), by Josh Long

2 Apr

Directed by: John Madden
Written by: Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush

For many people, the name “Shakespeare” conjures up memories of dry high school classrooms, research papers, and dull three-hour theatre experiences. Many Americans are introduced to Shakespeare too early in life to appreciate his genius, and perpetually associate him with boring homework. 1998’s Shakespeare in Love was a film that attempted to take that stodgy English sonneteer and show him as a vibrant, lovelorn poet, embroiled in an exciting world of sixteenth century entertainment.

The film is, for all intents and purposes, a romantic comedy. It follows a young Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as he searches for inspiration for his newest play. He’s hounded by producers, questioned by actors, and constantly searching for his next muse. He finds her in Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful lady-in-waiting in love with the poetry of the stage. While her father plans to marry her off to a rich nobleman, she masquerades as a boy 1 to perform Shakespeare’s plays at London’s Rose theatre. Shakespeare unknowingly casts her as Romeo, but when he discovers her true identity, they fall into a passionate love they must keep hidden.

As sappy as it sounds, the film manages to be very funny. Part of the comedy comes in the way it peppers in lines and situations from some of Shakespeare’s well-known plays, suggesting various spots from whence the young Will may have gotten inspiration. Fans of the bard will recognize the frequent references that less seasoned theatre-lovers might miss, but the film isn’t too reliant on these quips. They’re inside jokes for theatre nerds and anyone who paid attention in college 2.

Shakespeare in Love is most successful in its concept. It’s a biopic without strict adherence to the biographical facts. It takes arguably literature’s most famous figure, and imagines a story around his life. While it feels authentic, we know that most of the details are fictional, most of it based around events we could never verify or deny. But the point is not to tell Shakespeare’s life story; the point is to use Shakespeare as a vehicle for the story. In a true biopic, the historical facts are central. In this type of film, he is a character first and a historical figure second. If you go into the film expecting historical accuracy, you’re going to be disappointed, so it’s best to go in expecting a film that riffs on the idea of Shakespeare – “variations on a theme of Shakespeare,” if you will.

The film allows for a fun sort of romp, giving zest and life to a setting viewers might otherwise see as dull. It almost tongue-in-cheek creates a Hollywood-style romantic comedy storyline with Shakespeare at the center. They give him a doomed romance, an antagonist in Lord Wessex, a team of slap-sticky side characters. The funny thing is, anyone with a decent knowledge of Shakespeare will see the way that Hollywood’s ideas are born of Shakespearean devices. Silly side characters are reminiscent of Midsummer Night’s Dream’s “mechanicals,” plotting antagonists are descendants of Richard III and Iago, and no star-crossed romance is better known than Romeo and Juliet.

Another element that certainly would appeal to Academy voters is the way the film works as an allegory for modern-day Hollywood. Even though they’re transported to the Elizabethan era, the sixteenth century producers seem up to the same old tricks they’ve always been. Everything from cheating actors 3 to extortion, Hollywood insiders can get a real kick out of the cut-throat nature of characters like Tom Wilkinson’s Fennyman. The entertainment business, the film suggests, has always been a backstabbing, dog-eat-dog world.

Shakespeare in Love succeeds where some similar movies have fallen short. Several films have attempted to take a classic tale or setting and attach it to a contemporary sensibility. Tom Jones 4 takes the classic Henry Fielding novel and interprets it as a silly, slapstick comedy. But slapstick comedy is a beast that morphs and changes over the years, and what might have been funny in 1963 seems horribly corny today. Fielding’s novel has an implicit humor already, but the filmmakers practically throw that away in the interests of “funny-ing it up” for a modern audience 5.

Another comparison is Sophie Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Coppola’s film takes the historical character and shows how similar she was to a John Hughes teenager. But the approach is too close to the historical reality, leaving viewers wondering what they’re watching 6. Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, always stays at arm’s length from the realism of Elizabethan England. It treats the setting as a mystical, almost fictional, world. The result is a film much more able to draw connections from historical figures to you and me.

Twelve years later it’s easy to forget what a heavy-hitting cast this is. Everyone with any significant part is a serious actor – if they weren’t heavy hitters then, they are now. Besides Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, there’s Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck – it’s an amazing cast. And everyone’s turning in good performances. I’m not crazy about Joseph Fiennes in general, but this role fits him like a glove. He’s passionate, but a little goofy. It’s ok to laugh at his over-the-top love for Viola, because the movie doesn’t take it too seriously. Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench both won Oscar gold for their performances in this film, for similarly appropriate performances. Everyone is enjoyable to watch; their acting makes the movie everything you want a light-hearted romantic comedy to be.

I remember that following the 1998 Academy Awards, there were many people up in arms over Saving Private Ryan’s loss to Shakespeare in Love. At the time I had seen neither, so I lived vicariously through my friends, and I hemmed and hawed as they did about the poor decisions made by the Academy. But seeing the two later in life, I make no apologies in saying I couldn’t rank one over the other. Both have their merits and faults. Private Ryan’s subject matter may be more important, but importance of message doesn’t give a film carte blanche. 1998 was one of the years that awards for Best Picture and Best Director were split between two films. Spielberg’s direction certainly shows more care and finesse, and I think the right decision was made.

A surprisingly enjoyable film, Shakespeare in Love is very well-executed, and certainly deserving of Best Picture credit. While it might lack the import of some of its fellow Oscar contenders, it makes up for it in entertainment value. By couching it in a familiar style, the film might bring Shakespeare’s beautiful words to those who might not know them otherwise. Any film that might open this “brightest heaven of invention” to new eyes is well worth its price of admission.

1. The character of Viola masquerading as a boy is a clever reference to “Twelfth Night,” where main character Viola disguises herself as a man to gain the favor of Duke Orsino.

2. Co-writer Tom Stoppard is one certainly familiar with Shakespeare – he’s also the author of the absurdist masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

3. One of the greatest lines is in the first scene: Fennyman offers to give the actors a share of the play’s profit, in lieu of pay. Geoffrey Rush as Henslowe replies “But there’s never any profit” to which Fennyman replies “Exactly!” Back end points, anyone?

4. Tom Jones, Best Picture winner 1963, bears the distinction of being, in my opinion, the worst movie to claim the Best Picture Oscar.

5. An audience which it seems the producers deem to stupid for anything else.

6. The famous surprising scene in Marie Antoinette is when we see a pair of Converse All-Stars among the French queen’s eighteenth century footwear. Coppola meant to use this to connect her to modern-day teens, but it was jarring and out-of-place to most audiences. The film was too couched in realism to make a trick like this work.

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