Young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is a struggling poet, playwright and performer. He has sold his next play to Philip Henslow (Geoffrey Rush) and Richard Burbidge (Martin Clunes). Trouble is, he hasn’t written it yet. Every artist needs a push, an inspiration. He’s in search of his muse, and he doesn’t have one, not until he meets the beautiful Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). She loves theatre, but cannot dabble as she is a woman and part of high society. Impersonating a man she auditions her way into his next play. He sees through her disguise and they start a love affair. And so it begins, one of the greatest romantic comedies of our age.
Winning Best Picture in 1998, Shakespeare in Love gets a lot of bashing for pushing out Saving Private Ryan. That said, I think the best film won in that category. Also, I’d have taken Elizabeth over Steve Spielberg’s war drama. Everything about this film is perfect. From the pretty costumes to the set pieces to the acting and narrative, it was love at first sight. John Madden knew what he was doing with this flick and the shooting was a beauty like something chronic. And seeing them on the stage, including a young Ben Affleck playing Ned Alleyn. He plays Mercutio in the final production of what became to be known as Romeo & Juliet, which is where we lay our scene.
The tale of Will and Viola is much akin to the story of Romeo & Juliet. House Shakespeare and House de Lesepps are not mortal enemies but she is forbidden to him, as she is of noble stock and must marry within her class to Colin Firth’s Lord Wessex (Count Paris). “To be or not to be?” Oh sorry, wrong play. Though, we are witness to two characters. Both alike in dignity, and in their love of the arts and each other. And where class rules make their forbidden love unclean. You could say they were star-crossed lovers, but no lives were being taken like that. That’s what this is, it’s a love story and a great one at that. It’s poetic without being too on the nose or even worse, corny.
Viola is a lady of class about to be married to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a man she has no care for. Her heart belongs to poetry, acting, and Will Shakespeare. But he’s lost all faith when his girlfriend breaks up with him. One could make that link between this breakup of William and unnamed partner to Romeo and Rosaline. Though, at this time it is still called Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirates Daughter. Since it’s a men’s only play, Viola dresses up as man to get the part of Romeo. Later on in the night, she attends her father’s party where she lays eyes on William, not too far from when Romeo meets Juliet at a Montage party of the very same sort. Thoughtful screenwriting indeed.
This is what I call a romantic comedy. A romantic comedy does not have to be cheesy. It can be well-written, well-acted and have a well-composed musical score. But hey, I’m just a guy that writes a blog who likes non-cheesy romantic comedies. Films like Shakespeare in Love and Midnight in Paris are proof that not ever romantic comedy that comes from Hollywood has to be plucked from the Adam Sandler Bible. It really doesn’t get better than this, or more witty. It’s a film that captures the essence of the 16th century. The film is poetic and romantic, but it is also heavy and serious at times. It’s comical but thought-provoking, and can really make one think about how one lives too.
The set pieces of England four hundred years ago are great. The costume designers, makeup artists and hair stylists should be immensely proud of their work. Let’s not forget to mention Englishmen with alarmingly bad teeth (typical) as well, many being as yellow/crimson as a piece of fruit that’s been suffering in elements for longer than what is healthy. Gwyneth Paltrow shocked me. Her accent is spot on and didn’t feel like it was a caricature. Too often, I find Americans actors doing English accents sound like they’re out of Enid Blyton novel and turned the notch up to one thousand. This is the only performance of hers where I don’t think she’s annoying. Great job!
Dame Judi Dench (Skyfall) has the comic instincts of Rex Harrison. Her comedic timing is immaculate and when it hits, she draws blood. Shakespeare in Love is a worthwhile winner of the Best Picture Oscar. I struggle to see why people hate this film. It’s intelligent, clever and witty. This is a must for lovers of poetry and the arts, and period drama fans everywhere.