At the end of John Madden's Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998) Lord Wessex asks Queen Elizabeth "So, how does it end?" "With tears and a journey" is her reply; words accurately applied to the process by which this movie was created. For, upon its release, several noteworthy film and scholastic publications were quick to pounce on the similarities between Marc Norman/Tom Stoppard’s screenplay and a 1941 novel, 'No Time For Bacon', prompting its author, Faye Kellerman to sue producers, Harvey Weinstein and Edward Zwick almost one year later; the suit insisting Stoppard had pilfered whole portions of text from her other novel, 'The Quality of Mercy'. Even before these latter day controversies, Shakespeare In Love seemed destined to never get off the ground. In late 1989, Norman pitched Zwick and then rising star, Julia Roberts his fictionalized account of William Shakespeare's love affair with high born woman. Roberts was clearly interested, as the project might have fed into her own ambitions to continue the trend as a popular movie star of light romantic fluff. But Zwick disliked the screenplay so much he hired Tom Stoppard for what essentially boiled down to a complete rewrite of Norman’s original.
The old adage of 'once begun/hard done', at least in retrospect, fit this project’s early gestation. A deal struck with Universal in the Spring of 1991 imploded after Roberts, using her clout, demanded Daniel Day-Lewis as her costar. Day-Lewis had zero interest in the project and, unable to persuade him otherwise to reconsider with her inimitable charms, Roberts withdrew her own support just six weeks into pre-production; after sets and costumes had already begun to take shape; a highly unprofessional decision that threatened to send the movie into an irreversible tailspin. With monies tied up and no principle cast, Zwick aggressively shopped the project around. Execs at Miramax loved the concept almost from the get-go. However, they were not particularly interested in Zwick to direct it. After acquiring the property, Zwick was politely eased from the directorial seat and appointed Shakespeare in Love’s de facto producer instead. John Madden was put in charge and with uncanny expedience, set about recasting the picture with Gwyneth Paltrow as his Lady Viola.
For the title character, producer, Harvey Weinstein made an inspired, though rather unlikely decision in Joseph Fiennes. Although Fiennes had distinguished himself in West End London theatre, he was a virtual unknown to film audiences and a relative stranger to the picture-making biz. 1998 would alter his prospects for the better. It has become something of an oversight in Hollywood to discount any actor who dons the codpiece and tights. Errol Flynn, as example, was never to be taken very seriously as an actor, particularly in his swashbuckling adventures. And audiences have long since merely taken it for granted that any old star will do in a flouncy pirate’s shirt and goatee. Respectfully, I will simply submit that any man who can sport these rather effete trappings and miraculously maintain his own aura of viral masculinity, much less make it appear as the height of butch chic, wins my vote for actor of the year. Fiennes, like Flynn, makes the garb work and appear lived in - even normal; holding his own in costumes that might have easily emasculated his drawing power as the hot new male star on the horizon.
Herein, we must equally tip our hats to Sandy Powell’s costume designs, taking minor artistic liberties by lowering the open collar of Fiennes’ shirts for a more hunky appeal; also, Fiennes ability not to take himself too seriously in the part or the clothes for that matter. Above all else, Shakespeare in Love is hardly a literal interpretation of the Bard’s creative genius in preparing what is arguably one of his most cherished and widely performed masterworks: Romeo and Juliet. Rather, the picture is a light romantic comedy of errors, its plot – the lamentations of a would-be literary genius, momentarily stifled in his creativity, though freed from this writer’s block by an unlikely muse known as Viola. Very loosely, the premise for Shakespeare in Love parallels the grand tragedy of Shakespeare’s own teenage star-crossed lovers, although herein with its two paramours well into their early thirties and destined to go on living, if hardly ‘happily ever after’. The strength of Madden’s movie is its delicate balance between acidic wit and chaos, with a more serious undercurrent of inevitable loss; the surrender of a grand amour that might have been, sacrificed for duty, honor and, alas, by royal command. There’s no divorce in Elizabeth I’s time. There’s clandestine sex with a proper – or even improper – stranger: but no divorce.
And Fiennes manages an extraordinary coup, oft overlooked by the critics; to make featherweight comedy and high dramatics appear as inseparable bedfellows, the trick and joy of his performance and the movie, largely predicated on Fiennes’ ability to play Shakespeare as a bumbler, though hardly inept or ineffectual, but rather astutely – if clumsily – sincerely, even as he is emotionally wounded by Cupid’s arrow. The other essential in the movie is undoubtedly Gwyneth Paltrow; an heiress to Hollywood royalty, and an extremely fine actress in her own right. Paltrow’s great gift to cinema in general, and Shakespeare in Love in particular, has always been her infallible nature to exude a sort of soap-scrubbed wholesomeness that is never antiseptic, but rather curiously and appetizingly sultry. Her Lady Viola is ever inch a woman of fiery passions, openly shared with the only man – Will Shakespeare – who startles, then awakens her imagination. And yet, even in her amorous betrayals with Will, seemingly transgressing against an arranged, if loveless, marriage to the brittle Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), Paltrow retains an air of sweet congenital innocent.
Shakespeare in Love is, of course, a complete fabrication of the life and times of William Shakespeare. Ironically, the real Bard is not as well documented in the annals of history as one might expect. In more recent times, the eloquence of Shakespeare’s proses has been brought into even further question by probing scholarship, inquiring how the relatively unschooled son of an alderman and farmer could possess such vast knowledge of life at court. Shakespeare in Love is decidedly disinterested with these truths and is, in fact, a valiant – and mostly successful – bid to retell Romeo and Juliet as a slightly more humorous parable for Shakespeare’s own romantic dalliances and the discovery of his one true love, meant to be sacrificed in the moment that it might be preserved for all time. The film is also a potpourri for some very formidable British talent, a good many since gone on to international notoriety, in part due to their success herein: Geoffrey Rush as the irrepressibly devious theater manager, Philip Henslowe; Tom Wilkinson, as his even more joyously corrupt rival, Hugh Fennyman; Simon Callow, the absurdly authoritative, Tilney - Master of the Revels; Jim Carter (Downton Abbey’s Carson), as Ralph Bashford, who in the movie’s pivotal exposure of Lady Viola to the Queen as a woman, is first mistaken as a ‘she’ in her stead; ‘Are You Being Served?’s beloved effete, John Inman in a cameo as ‘Lady Capulet’ in the play within the movie, and finally, Rupert Everett as rival playwright, Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe. Each has their part to play in this pantomime and all do their craft an immense credit herein.
The year is 1593. The setting, London, and Master Will Shakespeare is a struggling playwright and occasional performer with the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Destitute and dissatisfied with his lot in life, Will begs his benefactor, Philip Henslowe, owner of The Rose Theatre, for an advance. Shakespeare is working on a new comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, that he sincerely hopes to become the hit of the season. Will could certainly do with a hit. His competition, Christopher Marlowe is a sensation; much revered and greatly respected within the community. He has a head for business and a nose for artistry. Alas, Will is suffering from acute writer’s block. Diverting his frustrations with whores and liquor, Will eventually breaks himself of this creative stalemate when he begins to audition young men for his play and finds an unlikely passionate fellow in Thomas Kent, who is auditioning for the role of Juliet. Remember, this is 1593; no women allowed. Men play all the parts. Will is considerably moved by Kent’s performance. He seems to have a knack for it. Alas, Kent knows too well the trials and tribulations of a woman, being one himself. For Kent is actually Lady Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, yearning sincerely for the passion absent in her own life, though readily on display in the theater. Meanwhile, the lead in Romeo and Ethel is assigned to Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck); a thespian possessing the necessary arrogance to pull it off.
Alas, Kent, spooked by Will’s interests in ‘his’ performance, hurries away to Viola's house. Will pursues him, leaving a note with the nurse (Imelda Staunton), imploring Thomas to take the part. Next, Will sneaks into the residence and meets Lady Viola with whom he immediately becomes smitten. Viola is betrothed to Lord Wessex, a penniless aristocrat seeking to improve his fortunes with Viola’s dowry. Will crashes their engagement party, dances with Viola, and, incurs Wessex’ formidable jealousy and wrath. Still unaware Kent and Viola are one in the same, Will confides in Kent he has never known such love before. He cannot rid himself of Viola’s memory. Wessex is enraged by this and demands satisfaction, Will’s lying to conceal his identity, claims to be Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe, who has been sincere to Will, thereby setting his inspiration on a new and more profound path, is later murdered in a bar room brawl; Will believing, momentarily, he is somehow responsible for Marlowe’s death by having lied to Wessex about his own name.
Viola is summoned to the court of Elizabeth I to receive the necessary approval for her proposed marriage to Wessex. Will, disguised as her female cousin, wagers Wessex £50 (the precise sum required to engage the Chamberlain's Men) that a play can denote the true nature of love. Intrigued, the Queen declares she will judge the matter for herself as the occasion arises. Meanwhile, the affair between Viola and Shakespeare heats up right under Wessex nose; Viola confiding in her ever-devoted nurse she is desperately in love, though not with the man who is destined to become her husband. However, Viola’s elation is blunted when she discovers Will has a wife, albeit, an estranged one. Moreover, Viola cannot escape the duty anchoring her to Wessex who, foppish no less is fool no more, increasingly suspicious about Will and his own fiancée. Learning of Marlowe’s death and still believing Will is Marlowe, Wessex informs his bride-to-be of the loss with considerable confidence. When Viola discovers Will is alive she openly declares her enduring passion for him.
Preparations for the debut of Romeo and Juliet get underway; Wessex, learning of Viola’s involvement, and still determined to crush Will, leaks this news to Edmund Tilney, the Master of the Revels, who orders the theatre be closed for breaking its ban on women. Rival theatre owner, Richard Burbage (Martin Clune), deprived of his new play after Marlowe’s murder offers Will and his troop his venue instead. Will takes the part of Romeo, with a young boy recast as Juliet. On the other side of town, Viola sneaks off from her own wedding to attend the debut of Shakespeare’s play. In hushed whispers, she learns the boy actor’s voice has begun to change with puberty. He cannot play Juliet except as comedy; Viola stepping into the performance mid-way and ready made for the part. The audience is stunned at the sight of a real woman on stage, enthralled by the obvious chemistry between the principle players. From the galleries, Wessex realizes his betrothed shall always love another. Master Tilney arrives to arrest everyone for indecency. However, unbeknownst to all, the Queen is also in the galleries. She restrains Tilney, asserting for all that although the ‘woman’ playing the part of Juliet bears an uncanny resemblance to Viola Wessex, she is indeed Master Thomas Kent, adding, “I know something of a woman in a man's profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”
Alas, even Elizabeth cannot turn asunder the lawful marriage between Wessex and Viola, ordering Kent to ‘fetch’ Viola, who is set to sail with her new husband to the Colony of Virginia. “How does it end?” Viola inquires, to which Elizabeth explains, “With tears and a journey.” Now, the Queen informs Wessex he has lost his wager against Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet has indeed revealed the true nature of love. Wessex begrudgingly pays out the £50, the Queen instructing Master Shakespeare to write something “…a little more cheerful next time - for Twelfth Night.” The lovers are parted, Will vowing to immortalize Viola in his next play. In his imagining of her journey to the new world, we witness a shipwreck and hear Shakespeare speak the immortal words that begin his next play, ‘Twelfth Night’: “My story starts at sea, a perilous voyage to an unknown land. A shipwreck. The wild waters roar and heave. The brave vessel is dashed all to pieces. And all the helpless souls within her drowned. All save one. A lady. Whose soul is greater than the ocean, and her spirit stronger than the sea's embrace. Not for her a watery end, but a new life beginning on a stranger shore. It will be a love story. For she will be my heroine for all time. And her name will be Viola.” Having survived the journey, Viola is seen walking off into the infinite across a windswept beach.
At the time of its debut, I do confess to being a trifle underwhelmed by the premise to Shakespeare in Love; somehow having gone into the screening with the misguided expectation for a more truthful adaptation of the life and times of William Shakespeare and being rather disheartened with director, John Madden’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of the historical characters. Like Milos Forman’s depiction of Mozart in Amadeus (1984), Madden’s Will starts out as an impish vulgarian, misguidedly suffering from some sexual ennui even as he wenches his ways through London with more than an whiff of sacrilege. However, time – and repeat screenings of the movie - has done strange things to these first impressions. Due in large part to the Norman/Stoppard screenplay; also, Richard Greatrex’s gorgeous cinematography, Madden's movie possesses a stylish wit and visualized elegance wholly unanticipated at the start of the picture; Madden’s gradual transmutation, from ribald comedy to more seriously bittersweet romance, keeping perfect time and tempo with Shakespeare’s celebrated masterworks; Norman and Stoppard realigning their slum prudery with some very feisty pepper indeed.
The show would be nothing at all without that spark of genuine on-screen chemistry burning between co-stars, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. Like their stage-bound counterparts, these are ill-fated lovers trapped by circumstances of their time; drawn to one another, yet forced to sacrifice for the sake of preserving the passion each has known only in the other’s arms. Destiny, fate, kismet; Shakespeare in Love is a rather moving tapestry of life imitating art…or is it the other way around; Madden toying with the tropes of the theater and life’s uncanny knack for being ‘stranger than fiction’; the stars realigning, not for the proverbial ‘happy ending’, but rather to expose the cruel disingenuousness it often plays on the obtuse nature of a man and woman in rapturous amour; the only creatures on earth who could believe such contentment as supremely possible and lasting for all time.
Shakespeare in Love is, of course, exactly the sort of movie AMPAS adores and through its deep and abiding affliction for period costume dramedy, rewards – in this case, with 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Is it worthy of the honor? Arguably, yes; the Stoppard/Norman screenplay is erudite and teeming in passionate and playful witticisms interpolated from Shakespeare’s own quill. Better still is John Madden’s direction; oozing the lustily colorful extremes of courtly decadence and the festering degenerate class, toiling, carousing and surviving the slums. Here is a movie quite miraculously unafraid of and unapologetic for its adulterous content. Hollywood’s reconstitution of Shakespeare as movie land fodder has yielded a rich band of players, starting with Judi Dench - who delivers the second shortest performance in Oscar history to ever win a Best Supporting Actress statuette. In her fleeting eight and a half minutes, she is a formidable and commanding presence. Colin Firth is deliciously villainous as the spurned Lord Wessex; Geoffrey Rush, an intriguing blend of earthy wisdom and foppish naiveté. In hindsight, Shakespeare in Love caps off nearly a decade’s worth of literate adaptations made at the height of Hollywood’s own love affair with period costume melodrama. The movie remains an intriguing alternate history and an irreverent revisionist’s glimpse at the Elizabethan age: a sublimely scripted blend of comedy, drama, romance and pathos; the threads of this interwoven tapestry made truer and more blissful with the passage of time.
Miramax/Lionsgate Home Video have re-released this bare bones Blu-Ray. In Canada, Alliance Home Video beat them to the punch with a 1080i transfer. Now, we get one that is, in fact, 1080p. Is the image quality superior to the 1999 DVD from Buena Vista Home Video? I grow weary debating the obvious; but yes – Shakespeare in Love in 1080p looks marginally more refined, with richer, bolder colors. And yet, the impression of this transfer is decidedly underwhelming. Again, yes: image resolution is tighter, crisper and imbued with more natural colors. Is this the best the film can look on Blu-Ray? Hmmmm. I’m going to suggest – no – for the simple and obvious reasons this disc is now more than several years old. We could use a new 4K master on this catalog title; one that would decidedly do more for the image on the whole and at last do justice to a home video presentation.
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. Aside: if the studios are serious about having consumers double-dip into their wallets for titles they already own, then a new philosophy ought to be employed throughout the industry and definitely applied herein: to provide the buyer with at least one palpable reason to want to upgrade their personal libraries from one format to another. I am not entirely convinced this current minting of Shakespeare in Love makes anybody want to do that.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)