Shakespeare in Love

“Shakespeare in Love” is one of those great, wonderful “what if” movies. What if one of the worlds greatest writers had writers block? What if producing plays in Elizabethan England was the same as hawking screenplays in Hollywood? What if one of the most treasured romantic tragedies of all time was originally called “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”?

You don’t have to be a admirer of the works of Shakespeare to enjoy this light and frothy romantic comedy. Never have the Bard’s words been so accessible. Still, those familiar with “Twelfth Night,” “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” (the play, not the Leonardo DiCaprio movie) will be elevated by the film’s clever dialogue and cunning set-up.

Directed with a deft touch by John Madden (“Mrs. Brown”), “Shakespeare in Love” is a rare treat: a period film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Set in 16th Century England, the film doesn’t wallow in the muck and despair that greets the peasants in the streets.

Instead, it’s filled with colorful characters who not only bring life to the proceedings, but a great deal of humor. The laughs come courtesy of screen writers Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. Their screenplay is one of the year’s best, a breezy blend of romance and comedy that never misses a beat.

Joseph Fiennes is sensational as the bedeviled Bard, whose extraordinary talents as a writer and a poet fetch him little more than a penny a page. Shakespeare’s money woes take a back seat to a much bigger problem: he has to deliver a new comedy, and can’t commit quill to paper. He’s blocked, and not in a Metamucil sort of way.

Shakespeare needs a muse, and finds one in the lovely Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow, just stunning), the daughter of a wealthy man who desperately wants to become an actor. Since women on stage were considered immoral, Viola is forced to disguise herself as a man (shades of “Twelfth Night”).

Viola’s desire to be an actor is just but one of her dilemmas. Her wealthy father has betrothed her to be married to a man she doesn’t love. The screenwriters do a splendid job of setting up the “Romeo and Juliet” scenario. Shakespeare comes from the poor side of the river. Viola’s family is rich and well respected. The very thought of them together hints of scandal.

So like Romeo and Juliet, the two must sneak away in the night to be together. Oh, did I mention that Viola has a personal nurse, just like Juliet? And that the nurse goes out of her way to protect her mistress, including making a fool of herself while the young lovers squeak the bed springs in the next room.

“Shakespeare in Love” is one of the most jubilant cases of art imitating life. The parallels between the star crossed lovers in the film and the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s play are engagingly dissected with wit and insight.

Fans of Shakespeare’s work will marvel how the writers have reinvented his most famous passages into an affectionate parody that never disrespects the original material. By positioning the film as a Renaissance version of a Hollywood movie deal, the writer’s deliver some unexpected laughs, like when Shakespeare’s oarsman asks him if he would like to read a copy of his latest play. You get the idea.

Director John Madden, keeps the proceedings light and airy. Even during its dark moments, “Shakespeare in Love” never seems dreary. Madden’s cast couldn’t be better, a wonderful blend of English and American actors who all seem perfectly in tune with the material.

Joseph Fiennes, with his dark, penetrating eyes, is excellent as Shakespeare. The younger brother of Ralph (“Schindler’s List,” “The English Patient”), Joseph is a double threat. Not only is he devilishly handsome, he’s incredibly talented. He succeeds here with the proper mixture of old world charm and a longing in his eyes that say more than words ever can.

I haven’t seen a bad Gwyneth Paltrow performance, but I doubt that I will ever see a better one than her luminous turn as Viola. Paltrow plays Viola with such confidence and maturity you immediately understand Shakespeare’s attraction to her.

Like all great Shakespeare plays, “Shakespeare in Love” is filled with marvelous supporting characters. Geoffrey Rush couldn’t be better as theater owner Philip Henslowe, whose very life depends on Shakespeare completing his latest work. Judi Dench, who starred in “Mrs. Brown,” is extremely royal as Queen Elizabeth, all decked out in pomp and circumstance. You never distrust her nobility.

Ben Affleck is endearing as Ned Alleyn, the swarthy actor who isn’t nearly as bright as he is good looking or talented. I almost fell on the floor from laughing so hard when Shakespeare convinces Ned that he is the star of the play, even though he doesn’t appear until half way through it, and then gets killed.

Every Shakespeare work has to have a villain, and Colin Firth is dastardly hilarious as Lord Wessex, Viola’s intended. He’s a rebel without a clue, a man destined not to let true love stand in the way of his happiness.

One of the reasons “Shakespeare in Love” works so well is the exquisite production design that never suggests anything other than the period it represents. It completes the fantasy that the writers, actors and director have worked so hard to achieve.

Rated R for its randy bedroom scenes and sexual innuendo, “Shakespeare in Love” is a delight from beginning to end. You won’t find a better entertainment out there this season.



Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Judi Dench, Ben Affleck and Simon Callow in a film directed by John Madden. Rated R. 121 Min.


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