Shakespeare in Love (United States/United Kingdom, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In 1998, there have been two films about space debris on a collision course with Earth, two animated insect movies, and now two tales about life during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Granted, there's a yawning chasm in tone between the dark, treacherous waters of Elizabeth and the breezy fun of Shakespeare in Love, but the films share not only an era (the late 1500s) and a character (the monarch), but a pair of actors as well. Joseph Fiennes, who gave one of the least impressive performances in Elizabeth (he played Lord Robert Dudley), is somewhat more successful in the title role here, and Geoffrey Rush (Francis Walsingham in the more serious offering) is the proprietor of The Rose theater.

Joining Fiennes and Rush in front of the camera are a couple of American Miramax regulars: the radiant Gwyneth Paltrow and the cocky Ben Affleck. Paltrow, who has sported a British accent as recently as in Sliding Doors, is the better of the two. She has the charisma necessary to convince us that her character, Viola, could inspire Shakespeare to write "Romeo and Juliet." Affleck, on the other hand, seems uncomfortable in 16th century garb, and his accent could charitably be called uncertain. Colin Firth, the British heartthrob who played the male lead in the recent, superlative Pride and Prejudice TV mini-series, is Lord Wessex, the cold-hearted noble who stands between Will and Viola's love. Tom Wilkinson (of The Full Monty) has a small part, and Judi Dench makes a few appearances as Queen Elizabeth. Many will remember her from last year's Mrs. Brown, when her portrayal of another ruler, Queen Victoria, earned her an Oscar nomination.

The talent behind-the-scenes is no less impressive than that in front of the camera. Edward Zwick, the director of such acclaimed films as Glory and Courage Under Fire, is one of five producers (along with his "Thirtysomething" partner, Marshall Herskovitz). Tom Stoppard, the playwright who penned, among other efforts, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," shares script credit with Marc Norman. And veteran British director John Madden (Mrs. Brown) is at the helm.

At first glance, the film appears to be little more than a period piece romantic comedy. The main character, Will Shakespeare, is a struggling writer in 1593 England. Currently, he's having trouble with his latest play, a comedy called "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." His problem is that he needs a muse to inspire him. He finds her in Viola, the daughter of a rich man. Viola, one of the few theater-goers who prefers Shakespeare to Christopher Marlowe, is equally smitten with Will, but she is engaged to the cold, loveless Lord Wessex, who wants her for her money. To fulfill a lifelong dream to be on stage, Viola dresses as a man and auditions for the role of Romeo, a part that she wins. With Viola's inspiration, Will begins writing a great play, which he retitles "Romeo and Juliet," while simultaneously trying to find a way to make his impossible romance work.

Although Shakespeare in Love offers its share of belly laughs, most of the humor - and there is quite a bit of it - falls more into the "wit" category. For example, while the scene of Will undergoing a primitive form of psychoanalysis is amusing, it's not likely to cause anyone to roll in the aisles. The romance between Will and Viola is not one of the great pairings of the decade (or even of the year, for that matter), but there's enough chemistry between Paltrow and Fiennes to make it work. For admirers of Shakespeare, however, there's a great deal more to appreciate. Numerous aspects of the script are peppered with elements from the Bard's plays: mistaken identities, transvestites, ghosts, poetry, and significant chunks of dialogue from "Romeo and Juliet."

Shakespeare in Love is about ten minutes too long, but, for most of the two hour running length, Stoppard and Norman's script seamlessly blends comedy, romance, and light drama. An added bonus is that, unlike in most romantic comedies, the ending isn't a foregone conclusion. Plus, for those who like "Romeo and Juliet," there's an opportunity to see how scenes from the play look with Gwyneth Paltrow alternately playing both of the title roles. Shakespeare in Love is not a great film, but it's an excuse to have an evening of pure enjoyment with a little culture painlessly mixed in.

Shakespeare in Love (United States/United Kingdom, 1998)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1