Shakespeare in Love
Directed by John Madden. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Simon Callow, Antony Sher. (1998, R, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 25, 1998
“The play's the thing,” proves Shakespeare in Love as it presents the imaginary events that led to the creation of the playwright's timeless romantic drama, Romeo and Juliet. The setting is 1593, back before Shakespeare went down in history as the esteemed Bard of Avon. As we are introduced to him here, Shakespeare is just another scribbling London hack, who is suffering a bad case of writer's block on his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. The movie's grand conceit is this mixture of fact and fantasy, using some of the known biographical material of the playwright and his age to imagine how he came to write one of Western literature's most enduring romantic epics. The result is a frothy romantic comedy that is equally nourished with truisms of historic lore and modern sensibility. In much the same way that Baz Luhrmann made Shakespeare accessible to a whole new generation a couple of years ago with his pop operatic William and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Love takes the text and the trappings of the Elizabethan drama and embroiders them into a thoroughly modern romantic comedy, along the lines of When Bill Met Viola … or Annie Hall. The script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard is similar in structure to Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the author takes a couple of Hamlet's sideline characters and reworks the whole drama from their perspective. In Shakespeare in Love, the authors use a blend of historic information, imagined events, and stray bits of literary luminescence to depict a love affair that might have occurred in the life of William Shakespeare. It's flighty, improbable stuff, meant not to be a historical restorative but a modern tribute to the scribe whose words have launched a million sonnets. Certainly, the more the viewer knows about the life and writings of Shakespeare, the richer the viewing experience will be, for the film is saturated with amusing detail and poetically licensed snatches of dialogue. Yet such knowledge isn't necessary to the enjoyment of the story; it's a 1593 love story that works on its own terms. To some degree, it's a classic backstage romance (with shades of a classic Shakespearean mistaken identity), as Viola (Paltrow) secretly dons male attire in order to appear on the no-females-allowed Elizabethan stage and falls in love with the besieged playwright Bill Shakespeare (Fiennes). We learn much about the state of the dramatic arts during this period as real characters such as Christopher Marlowe and theatre owners Philip Henslowe and Richard Burbage mix with the usurious money lenders, vain actors, morality police, and tavern whores. As the lovers, Fiennes and Paltrow (whose beautiful swan neck provides the perfect adornment for those elaborate Elizabethan collars) are an enchanting pair. The film's other performances are all terrific too. Geoffrey Rush and Ben Affleck get to demonstrate their deft comedic chops and Judi Dench rules the roost as the imperious Virgin Queen. (The last time Dench paired with director John Madden, it was for her highly acclaimed turn as Queen Victoria in his Mrs. Brown.) The set design and costuming are all also thoughtfully re-imagined. The end result is a delightful, though a smidge too long, reminder of one of the reasons we so enjoy going to the movies: perchance to dream.