Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

          

One of the most critically acclaimed films of its time, having received a slew of awards including Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love is an excessively witty love story centered around the youthful years of William Shakespeare. Filled with glorious costumes and radiant performances, it is a romance that you will remember long after the film has ended.

 

Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) is under threat of going to debtor's prison... or having the soles of his feet roasted over hot coals. Due to a decrease in ticket sales for his local theatre, his moneylender (Tom Wilkinson) is putting on the pressure. Henslowe is assured his young poet, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) can turn in a brilliant comedy of errors, and save the theatre from bankruptcy. Little does he know that Shakespeare is suffering from a common form of writer's block. His story entitled Romeo & Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter has some promise, but the romantic aspect just isn't clicking. Maybe it's the fact that his wife kicked him out several years before, and now lives half a world away. Maybe it's because the most recent love of his life was discovered in the bed of a rival. Maybe his good luck charm just isn't working.

 

Shakespeare is struck by the beauty of one of the young ladies of the court. Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a vision of loveliness. She simply adores the poetry of William Shakespeare, and feels restrained by her parent's heavy hand. More than anything she wants to be an actress and recite wonderful words on the stage. Her opportunity comes with the casting for Romeo & Juliet. Binding her breast and assuming the role of a boy, she tries out for the lead male character. Learning the boy is in her employment, William begins sending his lady love impassioned signs of his eternal attachment. But her marriage has already been pledged to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). This simple plot makes for one of the most charming films to come along in a decade. Too bad it revolves around an adulterous relationship, because the audience really gets involved.

 

The film is home to some of the best Shakespeare quips I've ever seen; the writers obviously had a delightful time coming up with them, mixing a few classic lines of dialogue with some witty puns. One classic scene involves William strolling casually down a side street when he hears a salesman give a pitch for his wares: "A rose by any other name..." While controversy arises over whether or not the man Shakespeare penned his own poetry or is a puppet, this classic jab at the Bard is both humorous and nose-thumbing at the true author. The plot also incorporates moments from Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and of course Romeo & Juliet. The music is playful, setting the mood for what the film is -- a tongue-in-cheek comedy with a few mistaken identities, cross-dressing characters, and a surprising twist ending.

 

The cast has some of the most impressive names in Hollywood, but it's Paltrow who deserves the limelight. Viola is beautiful and distant, charming and dangerous, utterly likable and forgiving even in the light of Shakespeare's indiscretions. She also doesn't know that her ardent lover is married, something I found consoling. It doesn't speak well for our fair "hero," however, to conveniently leave out the information they never can marry because he's already married. There are so many beloved actors in this film that it's hard to give credit to them all, but among them are Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, and Ben Affleck. The costuming is absolutely breathtaking, and the musical score is light and airy enough to make it memorable. I must also give credit to the writers for penning such beautiful dialogue. All of that aside, the film does contain numerous scenes of a sexual nature, some of them involving nudity on the part of its leading actress.

 

Viola and Will engage in a series of trysts (only one is explicit, but others contain upper nudity). Will walks in on his former lover Rosaline caught in an indiscretion with another man. She is later shown engaging in clothed sexual activities with her landlord. There is quite a bit of innuendo. The rest of the content is not worth mentioning, for there's limited language and only a scattered amount of violence. For all its flaws, Shakespeare in Love is charming. The previews would have us believe it's laugh-out-loud funny, and in some respects it is, but the heart of the story revolves around two hearts joined together and then pulled apart. It could have been a wonderful comedy for many families had they merely toned down the content. Beautiful, memorable, and truly heart-pulling in the final scenes, the movie is worth viewing in edited format. It doesn't erase all of the flaws, but provide a good conscience cleaner for those of us who just love a tragic comedy now and again.


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