A Welcome Winter’s Tale
“Shakespeare in Love” is a ray of light in a holiday film season that was starting to look as gloomy as the scowl on Ebenezer Scrooge’s face. A happy conceit smoothly executed, this is one of those entertaining confections that’s so pleasing to the eye and ear you’d have to be a genuine Scrooge to struggle against it.
As the title more than hints, “Shakespeare in Love” is a romance (and one played by the irresistible pairing of Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes), but that is not the limit of its attractions. Part knockabout farce, part witty amusement, “Shakespeare” has the drollness we associate with playwright (and co-writer) Tom Stoppard, but it has the rare ability to wear its cleverness with grace and ease.
The idea is shrewder than merely transporting us back to London in 1593, just in time to see young Will Shakespeare (Fiennes) fall in love with Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow), the woman who is to become his “heroine for all time,” though that is certainly pleasant.
The trick is rather that we see Will’s relationship with Viola have a transforming effect on the play he’s writing, tentatively titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” As this duo live through the real-life passions and tragedies of a wide-screen romance, that play in rehearsal gradually but inevitably becomes (of course) “Romeo and Juliet.” (Those hoping for “Titus Andronicus” might want to stay home.)
Co-written by Marc Norman and Stoppard, “Shakespeare” benefited from the hand of both writers. It was Norman (whose credits include “Waterworld” and the woeful “Cutthroat Island”) who came up with the deft original idea of having Shakespeare’s play and life influence each other. Stoppard (whose work includes the thematically similar “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”) came on to do a smashing rewrite, adding his touch with language as well as a smart subplot involving Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett).
Everett is not the only well-selected supporting player (Michelle Guish is the film’s casting director) “Shakespeare” utilizes. Starting at the top with an unflappable Judi Dench as the one-woman armada Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush in an unexpected comic role as a snaggle-toothed theater owner, adept co-stars include Ben Affleck as a self-involved actor, Tom Wilkinson as a stage-struck usurer, and Colin Firth (Darcy in the BBC’s recent “Pride and Prejudice”) as Wessex, the well-born but impecunious suitor for Viola’s hand.
Finally, though, as always in romance, it’s the stars that carry the film. Fiennes, the younger brother of Ralph, has the burning eyes and brooding demeanor appropriate for a lover, and he and Paltrow, flourishing once again under a British accent and doing her best work since “Emma,” have a winning chemistry. It’s no small thing to be completely believable as a besotted couple who can’t keep their hands off each other, and that is what the pair accomplish here.
The ringmaster who deserves the credit for keeping all these performers in sync is John Madden, who directed Dench as yet another queen (Victoria) in last year’s “Mrs. Brown.” Not one for directorial flourishes, Madden represents the pick of the solidly professional directors who’ve come through the BBC, adept at getting the best out of the material at hand.
It’s not Shakespeare or his eventual muse who is introduced first, but theater owner Philip Henslowe (Rush). He’s having his feet literally held to the fire by Elizabethan loan shark Fennyman (Wilkinson), who settles Henslowe’s debts for the rights to the next play by hot young scribe Will Shakespeare.
The problem is that master Will seems to have misplaced his muse. As he explains to his apothecary-alchemist-astrologer Dr. Moth (Anthony Sher), the Elizabethan version of a therapist, “It’s as if my quill is broken, as if the organ of my imagination is dried up, as if the proud tower of my genius is collapsed.” And so on.
One of the most amusing aspects of “Shakespeare” is how many Elizabethan versions of modern things are to be found in 1590s London. These jests include water taxi drivers who like to kibbitz and have written scripts of their own; restaurants where the waiter says, “The special today is a pig’s foot marinated in juniper-berry vinegar served on a buckwheat pancake”; and the kind of theatrical bitchiness that causes Shakespeare to say to Marlowe, “I love your early work.”
Speaking of Marlowe, “Shakespeare” is also clever in the offhanded way it makes use of real historical situations, such as the question of whether Marlowe had a hand in writing Shakespeare’s plays and the cloud over the former’s death. And students of English drama will be amused to see a teenage version of future playwright John Webster (Joe Roberts) being every bit as bloodthirsty as his later “The Duchess of Malfi” would have you expect.
Will and Viola finally meet when, disguised as a boy named Thomas Kent (women were forbidden on the Elizabethan stage) she tries out for a part in his new play. Will, ever the insightful writer, figures this ruse out (it’s one of the film’s unspoken jests that he uses cross-dressing in later plays), and we’re soon enmeshed in the heights and depths of a relationship we see echoed in the romance and agony of “Romeo and Juliet.”
In addition to everything else, “Shakespeare in Love” also functions as a tribute to the magic of live theater. Whenever problems arise, impresario Henslowe says not to worry, his explanation of how the difficulty will be solved is a wide-eyed, “It’s a mystery.” Anyone wanting to figure out how all the elements for this charming film fell so nicely into place could do worse than looking to that same phrase for an answer.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality. Times guidelines: genteel nude love scenes.
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‘Shakespeare in Love’
Joseph Fiennes: William Shakespeare
Gwyneth Paltrow: Viola de Lesseps
Judi Dench: Elizabeth I
Ben Affleck: Ned Alleyn
Geoffrey Rush: Philip Henslowe
Colin Firth: The Earl of Wessex
Tom Wilkinson: Fennyman
Rupert Everett: Christopher Marlowe
A Miramax Films/Universal Pictures production, released by Miramax Films. Director John Madden. Producers David Parfitt, Donna Gigliotti, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marc Norman. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Julie Goldstein. Screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Cinematographer Richard Greatrex. Editor David Gamble. Costumes by Sandy Powell. Music by Stephen Warbeck. Production design by Martin Childs. Supervising art director Mark Raggett. Set decorator Jill Quertier. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
In general release throughout Southern California.
FO Gwyneth Paltrow has a transforming effect on Joseph Fiennes as the inspiration-seeking playwright in the film “Shakespeare in Love.”