MRR Movie Review: Shakespeare in Love

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William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is on a cold streak. Not only is he writing for Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), owner of "The Rose," a theatre whose doors are about to be closed by sadistic creditors, but he's got a nasty case of writer's block. Shakespeare hasn't written a hit in years. In fact, he hasn't written much of anything recently. Thus, the Bard finds himself in quite a bind when Henslowe, desperate to stave off another round of hot-coals-to-feet application, stakes The Rose's solvency on Shakespeare's new comedy, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."
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Movie Review: "Shakespeare in Love"

-- Rating: R (sexuality and nudity, and some language)
Length: 123 minutes
Release date: December 3, 1999
Directed by: John Madden
Genre: comedy/drama/romance

"Shakespeare in Love" is a not only a breathtaking tale of passionate Elizabethan romance, but also a delightfully imaginative foray into the personal life of one of English literature's most iconic figures, William Shakespeare.

This tale revolves around a desperate playwright, his beautiful muse, and their impossible romance. Though there are plenty of allusions to Shakespeare's other works and personal history for fans to enjoy, knowledge of Shakespeare is not at all necessary to enjoy this film. Its central themes of love, loss, and art are accessible to everyone.

At the beginning of the film, William Shakespeare (played by Joseph Fiennes) finds himself struggling to finish his newest play, "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." The fact that it has already been sold and put into production adds extra urgency to his predicament. Forced to hold auditions for the part of Romeo in order to maintain the charade of the production being on schedule, Shakespeare has his first meeting with his perfect muse and the love of his life, Viola.

Viola, a young noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, loves the theater and all of Shakespeare's work. However, because women are not permitted to act in plays, she must attend the auditions in disguise as a man, calling herself Thomas Kent. She easily wins the role of Romeo, and though Shakespeare does not yet know her true identity, we can already see sparks fly between them as their mutual passion for the theater becomes clear.

Once Viola's real gender is discovered, the pair fall deeply in love, with a passion that is made all the more urgent by the sure knowledge that it cannot last. Shakespeare is married, but separated, and Viola is promised to a cash-strapped aristocrat played by Colin Firth. Their doomed romance inspires Shakespeare to completely rewrite "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter," transforming it into the beloved tragedy "Romeo and Juliet."

The new play faces several hurdles in its production, including an outcry against the presence of a woman onstage. It is nearly shut down, but in the end, the play goes forward with Shakespeare playing the role of Romeo and Viola subbing in as Juliet at the last moment. With Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) in attendance, Shakespeare's detractors are unable to arrest the company for having a woman on stage. However, all does not end happily ever after, as the pair can never marry. The film ends with Viola sailing off to the New World with her new husband. However, Viola continues to inspire the famous playwright, and he is soon imagining her shipwrecked in a scene that brings to mind his next play, "Twelfth Night," or possibly even "The Tempest."

Besides the thoroughly engaging plot, one of the great joys of "Shakespeare in Love" is all of the allusions to Shakespeare's work, life, and times. Many parts of "Romeo and Juliet," including the famous balcony scene, are recreated in this film and acted out by Shakespeare and Viola. Viola's nurse is a dead ringer for the nurse in the play, and the famous swordfight scene is also reenacted. In fact, virtually all the characters in "Romeo and Juliet" have counterparts in "Shakespeare in Love." This creates a very interesting interplay between the play and the film, and a situation occurs in which viewers become so absorbed in the world of the film that they forget which characters inspired which.

Allusions to other plays and poems besides "Romeo and Juliet" are also quite frequent and every bit as enjoyable. While some references might only be apparent to hardcore Shakespeare fanatics, other references are more obvious. Almost all viewers will know some of the famous sonnets that Shakespeare composes for Viola. Recognizing little touches like this gives viewers a pleasant sense of accomplishment and makes the experience of the film even richer.

Real-life historic figures make appearances as well, including Shakespeare's contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, another famous playwright, John Webster, and, of course, Queen Elizabeth. In dealing with these historic figures, the film takes us deep into the world of Elizabethan England, with masterful sets, gorgeous costumes, and intimate period details like Viola cleaning her teeth the Elizabethan way, with a stick and some water.

"Shakespeare in Love" is so richly detailed on so many levels that it's immediately clear why this film won seven Oscars. Though the ending is bitter, the film is sweet. Although Shakespeare and Viola's love must end, the film makes a poignant case for the transformative power of love and the benefits of allowing ourselves to express our passions.

Rating: 4 out of 5