Oscar Movie Month: "Shakespeare in Love" Review

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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."
3.5

Oscar Movie Month: "Shakespeare in Love" Review

-- Rating: R (sexuality)
Length: 123 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 8, 1999
Directed by: John Madden
Genre: Drama/Romance/Comedy

"Shakespeare in Love" is the not-so-true story of a young William Shakespeare, focusing on his struggles as a poor playwright in sixteenth-century London and his romance with Viola de Lesseps. Although the account is fictional, the movie draws on some historical characters and makes liberal use of Shakespeare's own body of work. Despite being released in early January, a time studios tend to reserve for movies expected to deliver lackluster box-office performances, "Shakespeare in Love" was popular with certain audiences and many critics. The film garnered seven Academy Awards, including awards for best actress, best picture, and best supporting actress.

The movie begins with a poor Will Shakespeare writing what is supposed to be a hit play for the in-debt owner of The Rose theater. Shakespeare is nursing a wounded heart and tosses out a romantic play titled "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." Instead, he begins working on what will become the tragedy of "Romeo and Juliet." The role of Shakespeare is played by Joseph Fiennes, who is known for roles in "Elizabeth" and "Enemy at the Gates," as well as in television series like "Flash Forward" and "Camelot." Fiennes delivers a charming, ne'er-do-well performance that makes it easy for viewers to both laugh at and fall in love with the main character.

Cast opposite Fiennes is Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Viola de Lesseps. Viola is the daughter of a rich merchant who masquerades as a boy actor by evening. For the most part, the children of rich merchants during Shakespeare's time would not have been part of a theater production, and women were not allowed to act at all. A love of the theater and Shakespeare's work in particular drives Viola to take risks that would otherwise be unthinkable, and early in the film, she auditions for a role in "Romeo and Juliet" dressed as a boy. Shakespeare is so impressed with her that he offers her the role of Romeo.

Of course, Will discovers Viola's deception, and they begin a love affair that drives his writing. The couple's escapades include several instances of cross-dressing, a trip to Queen Elizabeth's court, and the near discovery of Viola's work in the theater. They also suffer from crossed stars in the manner of Shakespeare's characters, being pulled apart by circumstances and reality even as they attempt to prove that a play can capture the truth about love.

An ensemble cast provides depth to what could otherwise be considered a silly romantic comedy. Geoffrey Rush plays Will's financier, Phillip Henslow, and Judi Dench received an Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth. Other notable performers include Simon Callow, Martin Clunes, Tom Wilkinson, and Colin Firth.

One of the most enjoyable things about "Shakespeare in Love" is the integration of literary history and folklore into the plot. There are numerous references to Shakespeare's plays, and the character of Will is often seen writing down or commenting on part of a conversation or an activity. Those who are familiar with some of Shakespeare's more well-known plays will have fun identifying snippets of lines throughout the movie.

The film also pokes fun at folklore associated with the time period and scholarly ramblings about whether Shakespeare actually wrote all of his plays. One scene features Will speaking with Kit Marlowe about playwriting. Literature aficionados who know that some people believe Christopher Marlowe was involved in writing Shakespeare's plays can enjoy this nod to speculation. The film is certainly not an academic resource and takes unabashed liberties with Shakespeare's life and the historical setting to deliver modern entertainment. Even so, anyone with a love of Shakespearean literature will appreciate the tongue-in-cheek presentation of certain information.

Those looking for a fun and romantic romp without a literature lesson will find "Shakespeare in Love" to be an enjoyable movie. Full of well-done slapstick, clever word play, and strong side stories, "Shakespeare in Love" is an ageless romantic comedy and a great date-night movie. The film uses the backdrop of the theater to tell a story within a story, and viewers don't have to be experts on the historical era or subject matter to fall in love with the idea of true and passionate love presented in the story.

In the end, however, the movie is quite realistic about romance. Not all stories have happy endings, and who knows this better than the Bard himself? Instead of an ivory tower and wedding bells, the film ends on a hopeful note and an eye toward the future. Viola becomes the inspiration for Shakespeare's next play, which is the comedy "Twelfth Night." Whether a couple finds true love or becomes star-crossed lovers, one thing is certain: The show must go on.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5