Shakespeare in Love
*** Stars
(US 1998)

Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush

Directed by John Madden

Writing credits: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard

Miramax * 122 minutes

n 1998, a year that saw a dearth of "light" films that further neither the career of Adam Sandler nor of anyone from the cast of any WB Network shows, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is like a warm breeze emanating from a bakery on a cold day.

The whimsical premise behind director John Madden's (MRS. BROWN) latest film is that William Shakespeare, portrayed as a struggling playwright under contract, is suffering from writer's block while attempting to write a comedy entitled "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." He needs a muse, and badly. Meanwhile, Phillip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, in the Zero Mostel/Max Bialystock role), the archetypal impoverished producer and theatre owner, is pressuring him to finish the play. To complicate matters, a financial backer (Tom Wilkinson of THE FULL MONTY fame) with thespian aspirations of his own insists on a role in the finished work.

All this would drive an ordinary soul mad, let alone a sensitive artist such as young Will. Enter Viola DeLesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a noblewoman with her own theatrical aspirations (1500's England being portrayed as an Elizabethan L.A., in which everyone has a script to pitch or wants to act). She is fond of the words penned by Mr. Shakespeare, and dressed as a boy, auditions for (and wins) the role of Romeo.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is at its best in its comedic first half. Wonderfully unexpected throwaway bits in the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, such as Shakespeare in psychoanalysis with a Merlinesque seer, effeminate waiters announcing pretentious daily specials in a rowdy pub, and a boatswain attempting to pitch his own play to someone obviously "in the industry" make the film sparkle with sophisticated wit. Joseph Fiennes, fresh off his much-touted turn as Lord Robert Dudley in ELIZABETH, shows great promise as both a verbal and physical comic, as his Will Shakespeare wrestles with attempting to create art at will in the face of pressure from his employers. This surprising comic deftness in Mr. Fiennes is a pleasant surprise, as his Valentinoesque smoldering-eyes bit could become very old very quickly.

Geoffrey Rush (SHINE, LES MISERABLES, ELIZABETH), the most prominent of the current array of awesomely talented character actors who transform themselves effortlessly, and often invisibly, among a wide range of roles, is almost unrecognizable, but utterly hilarious as Rose Theatre owner Henslowe. He steals the picture right out from under from the two more attractive lead actors in every scene in which he appears.

Excellent supporting performances from Dame Judi Densch (MRS. BROWN) in a too-short appearance as Elizabeth I, Colin Firth (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) as the idiotic Lord Wessex, and yes, even Ben Affleck, who struts around like a god as Famous Actor Ned Alleyn merely serve to underscore the weaknesses of the performance given by the film's leading lady, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Paltrow, a cold and remote screen presence whose success can only be attributed to the industry's current obsession with lookalike bone-thin blondes, is simply not up to the demands placed on her by the terrific performances of her co-stars. Her English accent is acceptable, if a bit affected, she has a lovely swanlike neck, and looks great in cinched-waist Elizabethan gowns. However, one never has the sense that she IS Viola DeLesseps, rather, she is An Actress reciting (not always comfortably) the film's lines as well as the Shakespearean dialogue, making facial expressions as required.

My own belief is that flat American speech patterns, even covered by ersatz British accents, just aren't up to the complexities of Shakespearean dialogue. A Cate Blanchett, a Samantha Morton, or a Kate Winslet could have made the role magical and the Shakespearean dialogue sound alive and contemporary (as in Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET). Instead, because of Paltrow's concentration on getting the accent right, all the romantic passion of both the Will/Viola and the Romeo/Juliet stories in the film must be supplied by the smoldering Mr. Fiennes, and the chemistry between the two leads seems to flow only one way, thus diluting the potential romantic power of the film.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is essentially two films -- a zany British comedy and a period romance. It works wonderfully as the first, but is less successful as the second.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE  official site

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