Miramax // 1998 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // March 8th, 2001
"Allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Strangely enough, it all turns out well."
How does one tell the tale of the greatest writer who ever lived? By realizing that he was a real human being who lived as a writer. By transforming the Bard from a literary icon to an all-too-real writer for hire, writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard created an enticing story full of passion and poetry. Shakespeare in Love emerged as one of the most popular and critically acclaimed films of 1998. It also picked up thirteen Academy Award nominations, winning Oscars in seven categories including Best Picture and a much-deserved Best Supporting Actress win for Dame Judi Dench.
Phillip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush -- Quills, Elizabeth) is a man with a problem. To be precise, he is a theater owner with a cash flow problem, and unsympathetic creditors. However he has a plan; a young, upcoming playwright named Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes -- Enemy at the Gates, Elizabeth, Dangerous Beauty) is writing him a new comedy: "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." It promises to be a rollicking crowd-pleaser; the only catch is that Will hasn't written it yet. He has lost his gift and is suffering from a particularly pernicious case of writer's block.
The cure to Will's writer's block comes in the form of Lady Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow -- Emma, Sliding Doors, Hook), a luminous beauty with a love of the theater and poetry. She knows Will from his works and sees him as the genius history has shown him to be. Soon her love of the theater has led her to disguise herself as a boy named Thomas Kent in order to play Romeo in Shakespeare's new play. However, their love and the realities of their world combine to change the play from a raucous comedy to one of the greatest literary love stories of all time.
From the opening shot to the end credits, this movie is wonderfully crafted and the story beautifully told. Every shot is carefully composed and selected to convey important bits of information. The extraordinary attention to detail transports the viewer to Elizabethan London, from the grime and muck of the streets to the elegance of the palaces and nobility. Scenes and camerawork are beautifully choreographed and immerse the viewer in the film's world. Also, the details of backstage life and the theater are brought to life in a very realistic way; the backstage sniping, romances, uncertainty, and ultimate triumph will ring true for any veteran of a creative production, from lowly community theater to Hollywood. Much is drawn directly from Shakespeare lore and his own works, and the interrelationship between the stage world and the "real" world in the film is intricate, often using real-world events to explain what is happening on stage, and vice-versa. There are really multiple stories woven through every scene, from Will's creative frustrations to Henslowe's money problems to the ill-fated Viola and her upcoming marriage to Lord Wessex. All of these stories combine seamlessly to create a very entertaining film.
The acting performances are simply outstanding. Joseph Fiennes presents Will Shakespeare as young and passionate and frustrated, just as the man who wrote such beautiful words must have been. A marvelous supporting cast backs him up, including Rush, Dame Judi Dench (Tomorrow Never Dies, Mrs. Brown, Chocolat) as Queen Elizabeth, Tom Wilkinson (The Patriot, The Full Monty) as the moneylender Fennyman. Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, Forces of Nature) also does a supporting turn as Ned Alleyn, lead player of the Admiral's Men acting troupe. Affleck in particular is surprisingly good; this is probably the best performance I've ever seen from him. Colin Firth (The English Patient, A Thousand Acres) also turns in a respectable performance in the rather thankless role of Lord Wessex.
Miramax has created a very nice DVD package for Shakespeare in Love. The video presentation is 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Overall picture quality is good, with excellent shadow detail and solid blacks. However, it is not perfect; colors look washed out in places, especially flesh tones. The image also appears at times to be a bit soft and not as clear as it could be. There were some instances of shimmer or moiré patterns, especially in ornate clothing details, but nothing that detracted from the quality too much. Overall, the video presentation is quite good with only a few occasional flaws.
The audio on this disc is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. It is crisp and clear, and dialogue is easy to hear and understand; this is important, as this is a very dialogue-heavy film. There is not much need for directional effects or anything that would tax the surround sound system, but the rear channels are put to good use for the musical score and some atmospheric effects.
The collection of extra material is impressive, as befits a movie that won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Leading off the lineup is a twenty-minute featurette entitled "Shakespeare in Love and on Film." This is a moderately informative behind the scenes look at the film, with lots of input from both the actors involved and the director and other creative personnel. It also features a brief look at some of the other film incarnations of Shakespeare's work. A second featurette focuses on the Oscar winning costumes designed by Sandy Powell. It runs for just over two minutes, but does feature Powell explaining her inspirations and intentions for the costumes.
The theatrical trailer is included, as is an extensive collection of TV spots. I may have lost count, but I believe there are twenty-one spots included. Many of them are very similar and hard to tell apart. It was interesting to see how the spots progressed over time, especially after receiving Golden Globe nominations and then awards, and then Oscar nominations, and the Oscars themselves.
There is a collection of four deleted scenes. The first three represent altered or extended versions of scenes that are already in the finished film; the fourth is a fairly humorous "blooper."
A section entitled "Shakespeare Facts" contains several text screens with snippets of biographical information about the Bard, as well as short biographical sketches of many of the historical figures depicted in the film. While a little light in content, this was an interesting feature and a nice touch.
The real meat of the extra content comes in the form of two commentary tracks. The first features director John Madden (Mrs. Brown, Captain Correlli's Mandolin). His insight into the film was invaluable, and my appreciation of it grew considerably from listening to his thoughts and experiences. One particularly interesting tidbit was that Shakespeare in Love had at one time been in development at Universal with Julia Roberts attached as leading lady. The second commentary track is a team effort, featuring several actors and other contributors, each introduced by a narrator and giving their thoughts on specific subjects or areas of concern during the filmmaking process. This track is quite informative as well, and explains a lot of the "nuts and bolts" of making Shakespeare in Love.
There is no question that Shakespeare in Love is a quite well-made film. However, there are questions that hang over it. Specifically, did it really deserve the Academy Award for Best Picture? Should it really have beat Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful? We all know that of course Academy voters can't be influenced by PR campaigns or promotional goodies, but there is a lingering suspicion that an aggressive soft-money campaign by Miramax played a major role in tipping the scales for this movie.
More serious is the question of Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar. There are two schools of thought regarding Paltrow. There are those who adore her, and there are those who view her as, in the words of prosecution witness Camille Paglia, "an insufferable lightweight who has yet to produce a single consistently good performance." Having weighed the evidence and scrutinized her performance in Shakespeare in Love and other films, I tend to agree with Ms. Paglia. Paltrow's performance is good but hardly Oscar-caliber, and can barely be distinguished from any number of her other performances. One can only imagine what one of Paltrow's more substantial and talented contemporaries, such as Uma Thurman or Kate Winslet, could have done in the role. Of course, either of those two actresses is too...feminine to successfully pull off the scenes where Viola is disguised as a boy in order to be an actor; indeed, according to the commentary track that was one of Paltrow's chief qualifications for the role. Much has been made of the fact that hers was supposedly a "quadruple" role: Lady Viola, Thomas Kent, Romeo, and Juliet. However, the differences between these various roles were quite subtle; so subtle, in fact, that they are hard to discern at all.
I have only one complaint about the collection of extra content on this DVD. We have come to expect cast and crew biographical information, and while it is an often-overlooked feature, it is nice to recognize the people who put such hard work into a movie. I find it quite useful and miss it in cases like this when it is not on the disc.
Shakespeare in Love is a wonderful film, and I'll even give it the benefit of the doubt in the Best Picture Oscar controversy for now. It is a cleverly constructed spin on the life of Shakespeare, a period drama and romantic comedy rolled into one. This DVD is a great package, and I highly recommend it.
The movie and those responsible are acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. However, this court finds Gwyneth Paltrow guilty of Grand Theft Oscar and sentences her to a lifetime or work in movies directed by her father and co-starring aging 1980s pop headliners.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2001 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* John Madden Commentary Track
* Cast and Crew Commentary Track
* Deleted Scenes
* "Shakespeare in Love and on Film" Documentary
* Featurette on Oscar-winning Costumes
* Shakespeare Facts
* Theatrical Trailer
* Television Spots
* Salon.com - "Paltry Paltrow"