Tuesday, March 12, 2013



When John Madden's SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was announced as the winner of best picture of 1997, it caused some controversy in Hollywood: Miramax, the studio it came from,  aggressively courted Oscar voters in trade papers (with ads that have come to be known as "for your consideration" inserts).  While this was common practice, the lengths that Miramax studio head Harvey Weinstein went to were seen as excessive, and some contended that he had essentially bought the award, stealing it away from Steven Spielberg's popular war film SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Controversy aside, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was the first film in the much maligned  romantic comedy genre to win since 1977's ANNIE HALL, (and the fact that it was a prestigious period piece about an acclaimed historical figure probably helped).  Personally, I feel that it didn't need any kind of boost from Weinstein since it's a wildly entertaining, funny, romantic, great looking and exciting film that's a shameless crowd pleaser (along with the romance and comedy, there are some exciting sword duels) that can satisfy both fans of the famed play write and novices alike.
Its long journey to the screen began in the 1980's when screenwriter Marc Norman first got the idea of writing a script about William Shakespeare while talking to his teenage son.  He decided to portray Shakespeare as a frustrated writer who had to deal with the same production headaches modern screenwriters have to, while also adding a love story to inspire the creation of the play ROMEO AND JULIET.  After finishing the script, he sold it to Universal in 1991; play write Tom Stoppard, a Shakespearean scholar who had famously toyed with HAMLET in his play ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDERSTERN ARE DEAD, gave it a rewrite, adding several characters.  At one point it was in production with Julia Roberts to star, but she wanted Daniel Day Lewis to play the lead, and when he demurred, so did she.  Although the film appeared dead, it found a champion in Weinstein, who loved the script and eventually bought it for Miramax.  English director John Madden was signed to direct and Gwyneth Paltrow to star.  After reading with hundreds of actors, Madden cast Joseph Fiennes to play the title role.  Except for some reworking of the ending that was done just weeks before release, the shoot for the film went well and the film was an enormous critical and commercial success, making over $100,000,000 on a budget of around $40,000,000.

Set in the year 1593, the story deals with William Shakespeare (Fiennes), a young, struggling play write, who is working on his latest play, ROMEO AND ETHYL THE PIRATE'S DAUGHTER, to be produced by Philip Henslowe(Geoffrey Rush)  at the Rose theater. Meanwhile, Viola(Paltrow), a wealthy young woman who loves the theater, dresses as a boy and auditions for a part in the upcoming play (women were not allowed to appear on the stage then).  William is impressed by her acting, and eventually discovers her deception and falls in love with her.  Unfortunately, she is set to marry the stuffy Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), and if that weren't enough, the play is beset by money troubles.

Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow

The film opens with a beautiful tracking shot of an empty Shakespearean theater that comes to rest on a handbill for ROMEO AND JULIET lying on the ground, literally plunging us into the world of the play; then for a nice contrast we immediately cut to theater producer Philip Henslowe  literally having his feet put to the fire by angry creditors, reminding us that the commercial aspects of storytelling were as important in 1593 as they are now.  This sets the tone of the film right away, announcing that this would be a portrait of Shakespeare that would be both reverent and irreverent, that would show him as just another struggling writer, but one who was capable of great things.  So, the first time we see the man who would become the most famous writer in the history of the English language, he is suffering from writer's block and distractedly practicing his signature on a piece of paper.  And we also see that he was not above lifting ideas from people around him, picking up plot points from rival writer Christopher Marlowe(Rupert Everett) or stealing a line from a roadside preacher ("A pox on both your houses!").  The film is filled with in jokes for fans of Shakespeare, like when Henslowe begs him to "speak prose",  and the plot has the kind of gender bending deception that pops up in so many of the bard's works.  There's even a moment when Viola asks him if he is the author of Shakespeare's plays, a veiled reference to the long standing theory that Shakespeare's work was ghost written. And yet, despite the often playful tone,  Joseph Fiennes in the title role wisely never becomes a parody, he is instead completely earnest and honest in the role, turning a character who could have been too romanticized or stiff into someone relatable and likable, even if he does at one point sell the same play to two different producers.  

Our first image of the immortal bard

Along with being about the creative spirit and the romantic muse, the movie is also a good natured valentine to theater folk and artistic people in general.  Although the various colorful backstage characters often fight over creative differences and have egos to be stroked (Ben Affleck is well cast as a pompous leading man, ridiculing his own image), they all wind up feeling  passionate about the play and are willing to come together to make it the best it can be.  I love the way that the thuggish money lender Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) winds up being one of the play's staunchest defenders, and how even rival theater owner Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes) allows Shakespeare and his company to use his venue when their's is closed down by the government.  It all leads to a great, inevitable climax when ROMEO AND JULIET is finally performed with Shakespeare and Viola playing the lead roles, the story echoing their own passion for each other,  and it works as both as excellent recreation and a romantic extension of the story.
Gwyneth Paltrow won a best actress award for performance as Viola, and, like the film's best picture victory, there was a certain backlash to her victory, which I find unfair; true, I think part of the reason she won is because she plays such a likable character (a plucky proto feminist who defies convention out of her love for the theater), Paltrow definitely brings intelligence and poise to the role, and her love of both Shakespeare the man and the play write shines through, not to mention that she and Fiennes show real heat in their love scenes.  If her character is a little too perfect, and her feminism a little too anachronistic, I'm alright with that, after all, to be the romantic muse of William Shakespeare leads to some inevitable idealization.  
Another controversy about the film arose when Judi Dench won a best supporting actress award for playing queen Elizabeth, even though she is only in the film for six minutes.  And while her character exists many to move the plot along and provide some comic relief, Dench plays her with such sly wit and sharp intelligence that she steals every scene she's in, brief as her performance is.  (Interestingly, she played Queen Elizabeth one year earlier in the film MRS BROWN, which was also directed by Madden).  
While some historians have criticized the film's inaccuracies, especially concerning Shakespeare's inspirations, the film is so lighthearted and joyful that is clearly not intended as a history lesson.  Instead, it plays wonderfully as a clever, romantic period piece that does its title character proud, and it may have even opened a whole new kind of viewer to the joys of Shakespeare's plays, certainly no small thing. 


While it's clear that I love this film, I have a hard time choosing between it and Gary Ross's  far different satirical fantasy PLEASANTVILLE (which, sadly wasn't even nominated).  And, while I think I lean towards Ross's film because of it's innovative (and gorgeous!) use of black and white and color, it's a close call between these two excellent films, and so I can't argue much with the Academy.