Lionsgate // 1988 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 11th, 2012
A comedy about the greatest love story almost never told.
"A broad river divides my lovers: family, duty, fate. As unchangeable as nature."
Talented but underappreciated playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes, Enemy at the Gates) has been commissioned to write a new comedy (the proposed title: "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter"). However, he's suffering from a severe case of writer's block, and is forced to fake knowledge of the details as he attempts to answer the insistent queries of the two separate theatre owners he's sold the play to (how he plans to resolve that bit of poor decision-making is a mystery). In the midst of this chaos, Shakespeare finds his muse: the beautiful, wealthy Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow, Country Strong). Viola is currently engaged to be married to the sinister Lord Wessex (Colin Firth, The King's Speech), but that won't stop the lovestruck playwright from pursuing her heart.
Fortunately for Shakespeare, Viola just so happens to be a huge fan. In fact, she's such a lover of Shakespeare's work that she has plotted to dress up like a man and audition for the lead role in his latest play (during the era, men played both the male and female roles onstage). It doesn't take long before Shakespeare discovers her secret, and shortly thereafter the two begin conducting a passionate love affair. But how long can such a complicated romance last, and how will the evolution of that romance shape Shakespeare's development of his latest play?
We've had more than a few questionable Best Picture winners over the years, and 1998's Shakespeare in Love certainly gets mentioned quite frequently when that particular subject arises. Was Shakespeare in Love really the best film of 1998? Of course not. When you consider that 1998 gave us Saving Private Ryan, Babe: Pig in the City, Dark City, The Truman Show, A Bug's Life, Antz, Primary Colors, Gods and Monsters, Affliction, Out of Sight, American History X, Rushmore, The Big Lebowski, A Simple Plan, The Thin Red Line and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (I could go on), it becomes clear that Shakespeare in Love was an undeserving winner. Even so, there's an unfortunate tendency to loathe certain movies simply because they're overpraised. Set aside the hype and just look at the film itself, and you'll discover that Shakespeare in Love is a witty, entertaining way to pass two hours.
Simply by placing Shakespeare and his work at the center of their story, the filmmakers have set themselves up for an easy critical potshot: this stuff falls short in contrast to real Shakespeare. That's certainly true on the surface (there's a notable adjustment in quality whenever we jump from dialogue written by Marc Noonan and Tom Stoppard to words penned by The Bard), but the mechanics of the plot actually are worthy of Shakespeare. The increasingly complicated events that occur are reminiscent of works like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, and hit upon many of the playwright's signature moves. One of the things Shakespeare in Love gets just right is Shakespeare's willingness to make startling tonal shifts (truly, he was the Tyler Perry of his day); his comedies contain an awful lot of drama. Likewise, the movie flits with ease between playful comedy (there aren't many belly laughs, though there are plenty of giggles) and stormy angst, all the while slipping in impressively subtle allusions to Shakespeare's body of work.
That being said, it should be noted that Shakespeare in Love works better below the surface than above. Shakespeare enthusiasts will be delighted with spotting the many clever references littered throughout the film, but the actual story being told is little more than a slight, pleasant romance. It's best regarded as a playful work of historical fiction inspired by Shakespeare's works rather than a biopic of Shakespeare himself, as the film plays fast and loose with historical detail and simply focuses on entertainment (probably for the best, honestly). The movie does a nice job of emulating Shakespeare's style for a modern audience, but the final product lacks any real weight or resonance. That wouldn't be a problem if Shakespeare in Love's only goal was to entertain, but the film's final sequence is clearly intended to tug on our heartstrings and it just falls flat. For all of its promotion of weighty drama over disposable comedy, the movie fares best when it's just trying to make us chuckle.
While director John Madden occasionally fumbles the pacing, he has an exceptional cast at his disposal, which helps keep us involved during the weaker patches. Geoffrey Rush (Quills) is having a good time as a down-on-his-luck theatre owner, while Colin Firth gets a rare chance to indulge his nasty side as the almost cartoonishly arrogant Lord Wessex. Judi Dench impresses in a handful of scenes as the towering Elizabeth I (and won an Oscar for her efforts), while Gwyneth Paltrow brings warmth and playfulness to Viola (and won an Oscar for her efforts). Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears) is actually quite entertaining as a vain actor, while old pros like Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) and Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral) offer memorable work in smaller roles. Honestly, the only real weak point is Joseph Fiennes, whose moody performance never really engages us like it should. Unfortunately, that's pretty much par for the course for the actor, who generally manages to be the least interesting cast member of any film he's involved in. He's at least a little more involved than usual this time around, but there's a reason that he's pretty much the only major cast or crew member who wasn't a serious awards contender.
Given that Shakespeare in Love (Blu-ray) is a budget release (a startlingly low retail price of only $14.99, with many online retailers slashing that price in half), I fully expected a lazy, upconverted HD transfer, but the film actually looks quite strong in hi-def. The ornate production design really sparkles, as the transfer delivers superb detail, vibrant colors and impressive depth. It's really a sumptuous-looking flick, and this disc accentuates that fact nicely. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is another pleasant surprise, as the film offers rather detailed, immersive sound design that really does a nice job of transporting the viewer to another place and time. Dialogue is clean and clear while Stephen Warbeck's singsong score sounds lush and enveloping. Supplements are ported over from the DVD release: two commentaries (a solo track with Madden and a jam-packed cast and crew track featuring actors Ben Affleck, Dame Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush and Gwyneth Paltrow, producers Donna Gigliotti and David Parfitt, screenwriters Marc Noonan and Tom Stoppard, costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Martin Childs and cinematographer Richard Greatrex), a standard twenty-minute making-of featurette ("Shakespeare in Love and on Film"), a 2-minute featurette spotlighting Sandy Powell, some deleted scenes, a trailer and a TV spot.
It's no masterpiece, but Shakespeare in Love remains a handsomely produced charmer that benefits from a clever screenplay and a talented cast. Considering the strong transfer, immersive audio and low price, this one is easy to recommend.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* TV Spot