Shakespeare in Love [DVD]
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Joseph Fiennes (Will Shakespeare), Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola De Lesseps), Geoffrey Rush (Philip Henslowe), Ben Affleck (Ned Alleyn), Colin Firth (Lord Wessex), Judi Dench (Queen Elizabeth), Simon Callow (Tilney, Master of the Revels), Jim Carter (Ralph Bashford)
"Shakespeare in Love" is a romantic fictionalization of how the great poet and playwright William Shakespeare penned one of his most famous plays, "Romeo and Juliet." As Tom Stoppard, one of the film's screenwriters, said, "To create something of that magnitude, he was no doubt hopelessly and desperately in love with a very, very special woman."
The woman in question for whom Shakespeare's torches "doth burn bright" is Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy, free-spirited heiress who wants to act in a time when women were not allowed on-stage. The film takes place in London in 1593, and opens with Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) suffering a bad case of writer's block (as a writer, I found that richly satisfying to know that even the greats sometimes have trouble). Philip Henslowe (Geoffery Rush), the owner of The Rose, one of London's two competing theaters, is desperate for him to complete a play so he can fill the seats and make money to pay off his many debts. Will is struggling, though, and he has yet to put pen to paper on his next idea, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."
As the film progresses, it shows how the horribly titled "Romeo and Ethel" ("You see, there's this pirate king ...") slowly evolves into "Romeo and Juliet," and each major sequence in the finished play has a vague mirror image in Shakespeare's life and romance with Viola. As Romeo spies Juliet across a crowded room at a party he should not be attending, so does Will see Viola at a party to which he was not invited. The famous balcony scene ("Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?") is inspired by Will waiting for Viola under her balcony, although the end of his experience is much more comical than Romeo's.
Even the underlying tragedy of "Romeo and Juliet"--that they come from warring households and, thus, can never be left in peace--is inspired by the tragedy that Will is a poor playwright, and Viola is wealthy and forced into engagement with a brutish lord named Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). This is not enough to stop the romance between Will and Viola from blooming, but it is enough to give the film an appropriately tragic, yet life-affirming ending. Don't worry: there are no double suicides here except on-stage.
"Shakespeare in Love" was directed by John Madden, who won acclaim last year for "Mrs. Brown" (1997). Here, he shows a brilliant understanding of the material and a keen sense of balancing the romantic, the dramatic, the sexual, and the hilarious. "Shakespeare in Love" is, at its heart, a romantic comedy, one that happens to be set in the late 16th-century. But, fear not, this is not your father's Shakespeare. Given slight twistings and tweakings for a 1990s audience, this "Shakespeare" is true to its inspirational muse without taking itself too seriously.
The major strength of the film is its witty, knowing, and consistently clever screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. It is one of the rare screenplays that would be worth reading on its own. This is familiar terrain for Stoppard, who has toyed with Shakespeare before by retelling the story of "Hamlet" through different characters in the stage and film versions of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead." Both he and Norman show real affection toward Shakespeare and all that he stands for, and they do a perfect job of melding the fictional aspects of the story with the known realities. For instance, they use the actual death in a bar brawl of competing poet Christopher Marlowe to mirror events in "Romeo and Juliet" by making Shakespeare feel guilty for thinking he caused Marlowe's death as Romeo felt guilty for killing Tybalt.
All the technical aspects of the film are top-notch, including the wonderfully detailed production design by Martin Childs ("Mrs. Brown," "The Portrait of a Lady") and the exquisite costumes Sandy Powell ("Velvet Goldmine"). Madden directs the film with a sure hand, and the camerawork by Richard Greatrex ("Mrs. Brown") is subtle and unobtrusive. Too many times in period films, the technical aspects threaten to overwhelm the story itself; but here, the technical artisans do just enough to recreate the world of London in 1593, and no more. After that, the actors and the story take over.
And what performances! In his first leading role, Joseph Fiennes makes Shakespeare into a dashing but sensitive romantic lead who is, nonetheless, a human being who makes mistakes and sometimes fails. One of the interesting aspects of the film is that it suggests Shakespeare was very much a product of the environment he worked in, and although his success can be attributed to his brilliance as a writer, he was given help from time to time.
Opposite Fiennes, Paltrow is simply luminous as Viola and humorous when she dons a short-hair wig and false mustache to pretend she's a boy so she can play the role of Romeo. Paltrow has many great moments in the film, and she gives fire and passion to her character, who could have easily been a cliché.
The rest of the cast fills their supporting roles well, especially Geoffery Rush as theater-owner Philip Henslowe. Rush wears fake, rotting teeth to essentially fill the role of the Shakespearean clown; he bumbles and stumbles through the film, making off-handed jokes and always going against the grain of Shakespeare's work. Just when "Romeo and Juliet" is truly coming together and everyone else realizes what a great piece of work it is, he intones that all he wanted was "pirates, clowns, and a dog." Still desiring a comedy, when Will unveils the grand finale of the play--the tragic suicides of the young lovers--all Henslowe can say is, "Oh, that'll have 'em rolling in the aisles."
Ben Affleck is surprisingly funny and adroit in the self-effacing role of Ned Alleyn, a snobbish, overly dramatic young actor who constantly complains that his role is not big enough. And Judi Dench steals every scene she's in as Queen Elizabeth, who literally acts as a kind of deus ex machina at the end the film. As the white-faced, terribly serious Virgin Queen, Dench has some of the funniest, most unexpected lines in the film, even though she's in it for less than ten minutes.
"Shakespeare in Love" is the kind of film that makes you want to go home, dust off that old copy of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature" from college, and simply absorb the poetic words of literate masters like Shakespeare. This film is a comedy, yes, but it's also a loving homage to a time when poets could steal women's hearts, and people cared about the written word. It is a movie deeply in love with the English language, and Norman and Stoppard do a fine job of writing beautiful dialogue to match with Shakespeare's poetry. Watching Fiennes as Shakespeare listening to his muse and feverishly writing out all those magical verses longhand with a quill pen gives you only an inkling of just how magnificent were his accomplishments as a writer, and "Shakespeare in Love" gives him his due as a poet and a human.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Surround
Languages: English and French
Extras: Two running audio commentaries, one from director John Madden and one from cast and crew; 20-minute documentary "Shakespeare in Love and on Film"; theatrical trailer and television spots; costume design; deleted scenes; facts about Shakespeare's life; biographies of real-life characters in the film
This is the second time "Shakespeare in Love" has been released on DVD, and while the first run last summer was short on extras, this new "Collector's Series" edition makes up for it.
The dual commentary tracks are wonderfully enlightening, as they detail the great amount of work and imagination that went into bringing this movie to life (one interesting tidbit: the original idea came from co-writer Mark Norman's son when he was in college studying to be an actor). The 20-minute documentary "Shakespeare in Love and on Film" is, like so many production documentaries on DVD, a bit light, but still interesting. However, the three-minute look at Sandy Powell's costume design is woefully short and does not even begin to illuminate the painstaking process of recreating the fashions of 1593 in the 20th century. The DVD could have made great use of still imagery to compare Powell's original sketches with the finished product, but all we get are a few brief glimpses of the original design and a brief interview with Powell.
The disc itself is quite good. The picture, framed in the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, is beautiful. The color is exquisite and the pristine picture really lets you admire the smallest details in the set design and costumes. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack nicely breaks up the sound, although the majority of the film is music and dialogue. The soundtrack does get something of a work-out during the production sequences, where it really envelopes you and makes you feel like you are sitting in the middle of an Elizabethan theater.
©1999 James Kendrick