Shakespeare in Love
directed by John Madden
(Miramax, 1998)

Things are not so merry in Merry Olde England.

Novice playwright/actor Will Shakespeare is long overdue with his latest effort, a comedy called Romeo & Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. But Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is less interested in writing Ethel than in finding 50 pounds so he can join Richard Burbage's professional troupe at the Curtain Theater and perform for the queen. And his halting attempts to write are halted entirely when he finds his muse in bed with another man.

Alas, poor Ethel. She might never have reached the stage had it not been for the accidental meeting of young Shakespeare and Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the stage-struck daughter of a rich merchant about to be engaged to Lord Wessex and shipped off to a New World tobacco plantation. In Viola, Shakespeare soon finds not only his muse, but more complications than all his characters put together.

Shakespeare in Love is revisionist history and literature of the first order, two hours of mayhem, high jinks and romance that the Bard himself would have been happy to sign his name to.

And no wonder. It's co-written by Tom Stoppard, the Czech-born playwright who gave us both Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and The Fifteen Minute Hamlet. If any modern author knows Shakespeare inside out, it's Stoppard. And Shakespeare in Love is Shakespeare inside out.

Brutally funny from its opening shot -- producer Philip Henslowe, his feet in a cauldron of hot coals because he can't pay back the money he's borrowed to produce Ethel -- Shakespeare in Love approaches the realm of genius when Viola disguises herself as a man so she can join Shakespeare's acting company, only to end up making love to a man disguised as a woman.

Rarely has such a ruse been turned so effectively on its own author, and to such ironic effect.

And, as you'd expect, the course of true love does not run smoothly. There is the impending marriage of Viola to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), not to mention the plague and a certain Elizabethan law under which women may not act upon the stage.

Paltrow won an Academy Award for her performance as Viola, and with good reason. She manages to be as fetching as a man as she is as a woman, although not always as convincing. And Geoffrey Rush adds yet one more idiosyncratic performance to his play list as the ever suffering, ever clueless Henslowe.

Combine that with the sumptuous sets, the even more sumptuous costumes and an intimate backstage peek at Elizabethan theater -- or what the Elizabethan theater might have been -- and you have a true theatrical grab bag: something for everyone. English majors get to play "catch the allusion," and non-English majors get to enjoy Shakespeare without the onus of sitting through Shakespeare.

Little is known of the real life of Shakespeare; for the most part, all we have is speculation. But with speculation like this, who needs real life?

On March 21, 1999, Shakespeare in Love swept the Academy Awards. The film received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard), Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score (Stephen Warbeck) and Best Art Direction (Martin Childs, Jill Quertier).

Also in 1999, the film won three Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture, Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Best Screenplay, and three BAFTAs (British Academy Awards) for Best Film, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Judi Dench) and Best Editing.

review by
Miles O'Dometer


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