Wednesday, October 21, 2015

From My Collection: Shakespeare in Love Movie Review

I just recently rewatched Shakespeare in Love and it was a s good, if not better than I remember it. John Madden’s film of the fictional and comic fantasy of how the greatest romantic tragedy in literary history came to be was my favorite film of 1998. I saw it Christmas Day, part of a moviegoing tradition I diligently maintained from 1997 through 2005, and then again a few weeks after. I bought the DVD in 1999 and have watched it a few times over the years and now I have the Blu-Ray (yes, I’m a dinosaur) so I can enjoy it in HD whenever I please. I was one of few people to accurately predict its victory in the Best Picture Oscar contest. In the Oscar pool I used to manage, only three people out of about thirty made that pick over Saving Private Ryan.


To this day, plenty of people lament that as one of Oscar’s greatest tragedies along with Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain. I’m not in that camp. Saving Private Ryan is perhaps the better film on a technical level and it is a harrowing treatment of an important historical event (the D-Day invasion, not the fictional search behind enemy lines for a single U.S. soldier as a PR stunt). People say it was just Harvey Weinstein’s muscle and money that scored the victory for Shakespeare in Love. That’s likely accurate to some extent, but only as far as he got the film in front of Academy members’ eyes. The story had to do the work of drawing out their emotions. And there was undeniably something in the air with Shakespeare in Love. People were responding deeply. They loved it. It was intelligent, witty, romantic, at times outrageously funny, and smartly wove a thread of fantastic ingenuity through the history of Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s oeuvre. And I have to say, in spite of anticipating a disappointingly negative reaction this time around, centered on schmaltz and emotional manipulation, I was once again swept up in the film’s story. Everything I thought about the film seventeen years ago remains true today, only more enhanced with a capacity for greater appreciation for quality writing and narrative.

The screenplay by Marc Norman and tom Stoppard, two well-studied scholars of Shakespeare judging by their writing, pulls out all the stops when it comes to inside jokes related to the Bard’s life and works. But the brilliance is not in the presence of jokes for those ‘in the know,’ but in the fact that you need not have an extensive knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays to enjoy the film. One is not dependent on the other, but is merely an enhancement. So in the opening scene of Will practicing his signature, eh tosses a ball of paper that lands next to a skull. If that means anything to you, then you may chuckle. If not, then the moment will sail by and you’ll be none the poorer for it. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m certain there are jokes that continue to elude me. When I first saw the movie, I had no idea there was an actual playwright after Shakespeare named John Webster, whose plays were known for blood and violence. Sure, it’s a little hammy that a boy character continues to remark about how much he liked Titus Andronicus and all the fighting in the plays. Of course he’s the young Webster.

Stoppard and Norman (though the screenplay is credited to both, I believe it’s been widely accepted that the premise and first draft were Norman’s while the finished product bears Stoppard’s fingerprints) carefully and cleverly weave the narrative of Romeo and Juliet into their own story of the daughter of an aristocrat falling in love with Shakespeare. Their actions often parallel or presage what happens in the play that Will is writing (which starts out as Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter), the idea being that Will’s inspiration is drawn from his own love life and moments within it. The balcony scene comes together in rehearsal in a beautiful montage cut together with Will and Viola making love while also reciting lines from the play. On paper and in description this must sound terrible. It could so easily have become the stuff of ridicule, absurdity, ham-handedness, and the appearance of erudition. But Madden’s direction strikes a perfect balance that makes everything feel so natural, so beautiful, and with the feeling of eternal romance.

There are so many joys to be had while admiring the way this film imagines Shakespeare’s transition from actor for hire and sometime writer to renowned and unforgettable William Shakespeare. We are treated to an endless stream of “what if” moments that purport to explain from whence he culled his ideas. He counts out the meter of phrases he hears on the street. His first conversation with his muse Viola is below her balcony while her nurse calls her to bed. One of the most challenging things to do in movies is to depict genius at work. Whether it’s a scientist toiling away toward the brink of discovery or a songwriter hitting upon a big idea for a new melody or lyric, intellectual rigor is not very cinematic. Perhaps most difficult of all is to show a writer at work. Somehow Madden achieves it with a big assist from editor David Gamble.

Will is played impeccably by Joseph Fiennes (in retrospect it continues to be an egregious crime that his name was left off the final Oscar ballot). He is witty, lithe, smart, and as capable of swirling his tongue around Shakespeare’s dialogue as he is of taking a hysterical pratfall. The supporting cast is a who’s who of British stage and screen royalty, many of whom were just starting to be known and recognized in the States. Geoffrey Rush of course had already won an Oscar two years prior to playing Philip Henslowe, the owner of the Rose where Shakespeare’s latest is to be presented. Tom Wilkinson is “the money” and becomes enamored with the theater. That’s Imelda Staunton as Viola’s nurse. Colin Firth is there as the sniveling fiancĂ© to Viola, a man who will whisk her away to his Virginia colony to bear children to farm his tobacco. Of course the indomitable Judi Dench made a big impression as Queen Elizabeth and won the Oscar for her eight minutes of screen time. Rupert Everett turns up uncredited as Shakespeare’s rival and better, Christopher Marlowe, who feeds him some basic plot points that help improve Romeo and Juliet. And Ben Affleck, superstar of the late 90s, fills in as the pompous Ned Alleyn, an actor who thinks a little too much of himself. Affleck makes a meal of the role and it’s perfect because he’s not much of an actor, but he can play cocky and give the audience a few good winks and pull it off convincingly.

There’s truly nothing in this movie I don’t fully admire. It’s even worth a viewing just for Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costumes which are not just stuffy period outfits, but they teem with life and bring out character elements that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. I could go on about Stephen Warbeck’s beautiful, amazing, and memorable score that strikes chords of joy, danger, melancholy, wistfulness, and heartbreak. I stand by Shakespeare in Love as I stood by it seventeen years ago. It was wholly deserving of its awards accolades and is in fact not just a throwaway romantic fantasy. It is a durable work of great wit and artistry, worthy of telling the fake story of the greatest playwright in the history of the English language.

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