Friday, March 15, 2019

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Director: John Madden                                      Writers: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard
Film Score: Stephen Warbeck                           Cinematography: Richard Greatrex
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush and Tom Wilkinson

Shakespeare in Love is that rarest of cinematic treasures: the perfect film. Sure, you can quibble about Ben Affleck or . . . No, there’s really nothing else to argue with, and I happen to think Affleck is great, so for me it’s perfect. Not only is the story incredibly intelligent, but the film itself is tremendously complex, beginning with the fact the story is actually a modern one in period disguise. It is the story of a young writer, who has achieved some success but has yet to hit it big. All of the in-jokes and the comedy of the piece center on the fact that it is really about modern-day Hollywood. At the same time, the historical action mirrors that of Romeo & Juliet, the work Shakespeare is writing in the film. Finally, there is the actual play that is being rehearsed for the premiere performance of Romeo & Juliet in 1593. The screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard is at the heart of what makes the film so special, but added to that is nearly every great character actor in England at the time, and it takes the story to another level altogether. Audiences recognized greatness when they saw it, and the film was not only a box office success but won the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as six other Academy Awards out of thirteen nominations. Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench won for best actress and supporting actress, Norman and Stoppard won for their screenplay, Stephen Warbeck for his film score, as well as art direction and costume design. It is a film that is so full of energy and passion that it rewards repeat viewings by always seeming to reveal something new.

The film opens with text telling the audience there are two competing theaters in Elizabethan London, The Curtain and The Rose. Geoffrey Rush, the owner of The Rose, is having cash flow problems and creditor Tom Wilkinson is seriously considering having him killed. But Rush tells him he has a new play by Will Shakespeare . . . and Wilkinson wants to kill him even more. But when Rush tells him he’ll make him partners in the production, he agrees, provided they can put the play on in two weeks. The only problem is that Joe Fiennes, as Shakespeare, hasn’t written anything yet. The opening credits begin over Fiennes hard at work at his desk . . . practicing his autograph. Rush is desperate for a new play, but Fiennes is suffering from writer’s block. He’s also trying to get together fifty pounds so that he can join the rival theater, and promises the same play to Martin Clunes, the owner of The Curtain. He’ also frustrated that he doesn’t get paid when his work is performed for Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth. Meanwhile young noblewoman Gwyneth Paltrow wants desperately to perform on the stage, but is forbidden to because she’s a woman. She has also unknowingly been promised in marriage to nobleman Colin Firth against her wishes. Finally she dresses as a man and winds up winning a great part, Romeo, in the first ever production of Romeo & Juliet--temporarily called Romeo & Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Things are already complicated, but it only gets worse when Fiennes falls for Paltrow at a dance and the two fall madly in love.

The movie definitely falls into romantic comedy territory, but it is so much more. There’s a subtle element of fantasy about whole thing, in which the characterizations and situations are played at the very edge of believability. The reason for is because this is another aspect of Shakespeare’s plays, in which the audience gladly suspends disbelief in order to fully appreciate the story. It’s also incredibly funny. Geoffrey Rush and Gwyneth Paltrow hold down the opposite ends of the story, and Joe Fiennes flits between them. Tom Wilkinson is absolutely marvelous as the money-lender who becomes a theater groupie, and Judi Dench is so magnificent as the Queen she won an Oscar for six minutes of screen time. Ben Affleck is completely credible as the most famous actor of his day, and Colin Firth plays against type as the pitiable villain. The great Simon Callow, along with Martin Clunes, Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton and a host of great character actors, like the instantly recognizable Jim Carter from Downton Abbey in an early role, fill out the rest of the cast. Director John Madden’s career sort of paralleled Shakespeare’s at this time, as he had made a lot of solid films but none of them achieving greatness. He put his critics to rest with this film. And holding it all together is a brilliant film score by Stephen Warbeck that is evocative and yet respectful of the time period. It’s difficult to imagine anyone not having seen this film yet, but if not you have a real treat in store. Shakespeare in Love is one Oscar-winning film that more than lives up to that recognition and it gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.