William Shakespeare solves his writer's block with an affair, inspiring him to write Romeo and Juliet.
Directed by John Madden
Starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The desire to mix what seems like classical comedy with modern touches falls flat on its face, repeatedly. Shakespeare as therapy patient is a thorn in the film's side, as is the knowing bullshit of telling the young gorehound kid that he'll make his mark on the world someday, which led to me immediately Googling John Webster and what do you know, he's also a famous playwright. The stutterer pulls it all together for his big moment, only to return to stuttering immediately after. "The show must, you know..." "Go on!" These are Shrek-level jokes. Shakespeare in Love can't pick a lane, wanting to be a modern film that is also heavily indebted to the plot stylings of the Elizabethan Age. There's also a level of overacting here that, again, might've made sense when theater actors needed to oversell their performance but this was made in 1997 or 1998. It doesn't mix. Rush as Henslowe is the worst culprit, a sniveling toad who shimmies like he's being tickled when being tortured in an opening scene that immediately turns me against the film.
The tone of Shakespeare in Love fails for me, which means that most of its subplots don't move the needle, either. I'm not particularly moved by the central romance. Colin Firth plays Wessex as a worthy villain, Joseph Fiennes is a fine romantic lead and a manic Shakespeare, but it's hard for me to determine whether Gwyneth Paltrow is any good here or not, half because I can't stand her public persona as the Food Babe for people with money, and half because her and Shakespeare's relationship is hampered by lackluster chemistry. I never bought that Shakespeare liked her beyond her attractiveness and her flattery towards him, and Paltrow's Viola doesn't help the relationship seem less one-sided. I've mentioned my distaste for Rush's acting, so yes, that character can be beat up and I won't feel anything about it. The theater company war culminates in a hacky fight that literally has characters' heads being bonked against each other. The only one that works is Tom Wilkinson's Fennyman the loan shark, who steals the film and sells the arc of someone going from cynical to passionate and falling in love with theater along the way.
Aside from Wilkinson, what I most admire about Shakespeare in Love is the overall structure, where the events of Shakespeare's life are going to inform the writing of Romeo and Juliet. It's easy to see why this won an Oscar for writing, as it's about writing and writers probably like to see their work reflected onscreen. Block, a superstitious routine, inspiration followed by a burst of writing, scrapping some things and replacing them with others, taking hints from wherever they come from, it's all present, and for the viewer who knows what to expect from Romeo and Juliet, the film allows for that complimentary feeling of being a little bit ahead of what's happening. Shakespeare in Love reminded me that I like Romeo and Juliet more than I thought I did, and the whole performance of it at the end does successfully put the viewer in the headspace of someone seeing it for the first time, with the requisite gasps and shocks. The film's greatest utility is solely that, the capturing of a historical reaction and the thought that the feeling of watching a story unfold and knowing that one is seeing something great is the same now as it was in the 16th century. It's not a feeling I had watching this movie, per se, but it's certainly one I've had before.
Judi Dench's Queen Elizabeth at one point makes a bet halfway through the film that there won't be a play that is able to transcend the illusions of the theater and say something real about love. Romeo and Juliet is the subject of that bet, so it pays off, but if Shakespeare in Love was the subject, that's a loser. The best things in this film are far away from the romance, and are heavily influenced by the power of the play at its center. Give Tommy Wiseau those lines, and even he'll manage to do something with them. It's not fair to compare John Madden to Shakespeare, but I can compare Madden's film to others, and it comes up lacking. I was far more irritated with this than I was amused, and I had little invested in the romance. There's enough here to say I liked it, but just barely, so that earns Shakespeare in Love a C, putting it in the basement for Best Picture winners. At least it can comfort itself knowing that The Artist is hanging out beneath it.