Even before these latter day controversies, Shakespeare In Love seemed a project destined to never get off the ground. In late 1989, Norman approached producer Edward Zwick and then rising star Julia Roberts with a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare's love affair with high born woman. Roberts was clearly interested in playing that latter part, but Zwick disliked the screenplay so much that he hired Tom Stoppard instead for what eventually boiled down to a complete rewrite.
The old adage of 'once begun/hard done' seems to, at least in retrospect, fit the gestation of this project. Unable to convince Daniel Day-Lewis to co-star, Julia Roberts withdrew after sets and costumes were already well underway, just a scant six weeks before principle photography was to begin. With monies tied up and no principle cast at his disposal, Zwick aggressively shopped the project to Miramax who loved the idea from the get go but were not particularly interested in having Zwick direct. After their outright purchase of the property, Zwick was appointed the defacto producer and John Madden was assigned the film, recasting Gwyneth Paltrow in the pivotal role of Lady Viola.
For their choice of title character, producer Harvey Weinstein made a rather unlikely decision in Joseph Fiennes. Although Fiennes had distinguished himself in West End London theatre, he was a virtual unknown to film audiences at large and a relative stranger to making movies in general. 1998 would change all that - particularly after Fiennes compounded his success herein with another in Elizabeth (1998) starring Cate Blanchett.
For the most part, Shakespeare in Love is a fabrication of Shakespeare's life, even though certain characters and situations remain true to the period and biographical information made readily available. Young Will (Fiennes) is a playwright without a theatre. His latest venture - to supply Philip Henslowe's (Geoffrey Rush) struggling Rose Theatre with a play for the summer season - has run into considerable writer's block.
Worse, Will has become an artist without his muse. To divert his attentions from this quandary, Will wenches his way through a fair cue of young bar maids including rival theatre owner, Richard Burbage's (Martin Cunes) mistress, even though Will is married, though estranged, from his wife who is living at Stratford. Although his heart and his loins are never in the same place at once, Will is stirred to inspiration after the first sight of Lady Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) whom he accidentally meets while spying on one of Burbage's command performances for the Queen (Judi Dench). Viola is from a wealthy house that frowns upon the theatre and those associated with it. Her family's opinions however, do not stop the headstrong Vi’ - whose dream it is to become an actress. One problem: women are not permitted on the stage under Elizabethan law. So, Viola disguises herself as a man - Thomas Kent - to audition for Will’s latest play; Romeo and Ethel – the Pirate’s Daughter.
The audition goes well - too well, in fact and Will soon learns that Kent is Viola. The two become passionate lovers. But that affair is doomed when Viola's father pledges her in marriage to the overbearing Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). Wessex threatens Will with imminent death and to escape his true identity being found out, Will tells Wessex that he is Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett); England's then leading playwright. This lie will have grave repercussions later on.
In the meantime, Wessex takes Viola to Elizabeth's court for an audience with the Queen whereupon Elizabeth correctly deduces that Viola has 'been plucked' since she last saw her. The revelation sends Wessex into a rage. Coincidentally, news arrives by messenger at a brothel Will is frequenting with his players, including Thomas Kent, that Marlowe has been stabbed in a tavern on the outskirts of town. Incorrectly assuming that Wessex has lived up to his threat to kill him, Will goes into deep despair.
Hearing a rumour that The Rose has cast a woman in their play, Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney (Simon Callow) closes the theatre. All is not lost, however. Burbage, who had commissioned a play by Marlowe, now proposes that Henslowe and his company put on their play - rechristened 'Romeo & Juliet' at his theatre instead. Meanwhile, Viola's reluctant marriage to Wessex crumbles after she learns that the play is to continue as planned. Sneaking away to attend, Viola is asked to play the part of Juliet instead after the voice of the boy assigned to the role has already begun to change.
The audience is understandably agog at the sight of a woman on stage, more so after the play's resounding success when Tilney arrives to arrest everyone in the name of the Queen because of Viola's performance. Instead, Elizabeth reveals that she has been observing the play all along from the balcony and breaks with her own law by pretending that Viola is Thomas Kent.
Elizabeth also admonishes Lord Wessex, her modest delight in humbling this arrogant peacock proving to be a most fitting conclusion to the story. Regrettably, English law prevents Elizabeth from setting aside Viola's marriage decree. After commissioning Will to court as her official playwright, Elizabeth instructs Viola to make journey with Wessex to America where she will start her new life as his wife.
The final few moments of the film spare Viola this fate as the plot of Will's latest play 'Twelfth Night' parallels Viola's journey. The ship carrying Wessex and Viola to the new world is sunk and Viola, being the sole survivor, approaches a vast sandy, windswept beach alone, her future as uncertain as the heroine in Will's play.
Thus ends, Shakespeare in Love. At the time the film debuted, this reviewer must confess to being rather disheartened by Madden’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of the film's historical characters. Like Milos Forman’s depiction of Mozart as a vulgarian who enjoys spanking women’s bottoms while passing gas from his own in Amadeus (1984), Madden’s assessment of Shakespeare as a carousing fop of no account, whose inspiration is sparked only after a few spirited rolls in the hay, hinted at more than an whiff of sacrilege.
Time, however, does strange things to one’s opinions and first impressions. Madden's film has a veneer of stylish elegance all its own and a genuinely heartfelt and emotional last act – one that realigns the slum prudery and feisty pepper in Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.
Gwyneth Paltrow delivers a rapturous performance as the conflicted Viola. Autonomy seems to have been Joseph Fiennes best friend on this outing. In 1998 he was believable as Shakespeare simply because as an audience we knew him not as anyone else beforehand. Since the film it has been difficult to think of him as anyone but.
Judi Dench delivers what is basically the second shortest performance to ever win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In her fleeting eight and a half minutes she is a commanding presence, utterly charming in all her restrained, impatient decadence. In the final analysis, Shakespeare in Love is an intriguing alter-history and a wonderfully irreverent glimpse at the Elizabethan age. It's superb script blends comedy, drama and romance into a tapestry of Shakespearean quotes made truer to life by their glib excisions.
Alliance Home Video has released a bare bones Blu-Ray in Canada but it is hardly worthy. For starters, the image is 1080i not 1080p - an oversight that frequently plagues Alliance releases this side of the border. Is the image superior to the 1999 DVD from Buena Vista Home Video? Absolutely. The resolution is tighter, the image more refined, crisp and with more natural colors realized throughout. Is this the best the film can look on Blu-Ray. Decidedly not, as every attempt ought to have been made to scan the image progressively for optimal quality. Furthermore, there are more than a handful of instances where age related artefacts make their presence known.
This reviewer will pause a moment herein to suggest that lack of foresight is a large part of the reason Blu-Ray sales on the whole have not been as overwhelmingly positive as DVD sales used to be. If the studios are serious about having people repurchase titles on the new digital format then the necessary up conversion of existing transfers to true HD 1080p brilliance must be of paramount concern and consideration. There's really NO POINT in offering less than perfect transfers of this or any other movie for that matter. Enough said!
Back to this review. The audio remains Dolby Digital 5.1. Again, there is nothing wrong with it - but this disc is hardly utilizing all the capabilities that Blu-Ray has to offer. Extras are even more of a disappointment. There are none, save a 'car commercial' that precedes the feature.
BOTTOM LINE: As Alliance in the U.S. seems reluctant to release any of the titles under the old Miramax banner (The Cider House Rules, Life Is Beautiful, Muriel's Wedding, Gosford Park...etc.) I suppose this Alliance Canada reissue must suffice for lovers of their product. Hence, this disc comes grudgingly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)