Shakespeare in Love (1998)

D: John Madden
S: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes

In the days when 'high concept' projects like The Truman Show and overbearing 'message movies' like Saving Private Ryan seem destined for rave reviews and awards statuettes, it is refreshing to see an original, well written film like Shakespeare in Love come out of Hollywood. Disarmingly funny, genuinely romantic and hugely entertaining, this comic drama written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard is a not so much a dark horse as a white stallion, trouncing its competitors.

William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) suffers from writers' block while his producer (Geoffrey Rush) is tortured by local money lenders (led by The Full Monty's Tom Wilkinson) awaiting the production of his latest comedy, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. An encounter with beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow, a wealthy heiress promised to arrogant Lord Colin Firth, provides peculiar inspiration, especially because they meet when she pretends to be male and auditions for the part of Romeo. Fact and fiction begin to change places as their relationship develops, with both sets of lovers being torn apart by fate and circumstance, reciting lines in bed which are heard then on stage. The play begins to transform, and as questions of duty and fidelity inevitably rise to drive a wedge between Fiennes and Paltrow, it shifts from comedy to tragedy. Further complications ensue when Firth swears to kill Fiennes, thinking him to be Christopher Marlowe, and when social and political events threaten to stop production altogether.

Splendidly cast and enjoyably acted, the film proceeds at pace from the opening, charting misadventures, mistaken identities, chance encounters, comedy, romance, and tragedy such as The Bard himself might have approved of. Stoppard and Norman also delight in throwing in references to other famous plays (Marlowe's and Shakespeare's), not just for the amusement of would-be sophisticates, but to demonstrate the sometimes casual, sometimes desperate inspirations which produce works of art. It is far from a history lesson, but it does include elements of fact and establishes an authentic Elizabethan atmosphere in which the drama is played out.

It is essentially a reworking of Romeo and Juliet : not the postmodern stylisation of Baz Luhrmann's recent hit, but more a genuine rethinking which incorporates questions beyond the text like Al Pacino's Looking for Richard. Originality is a difficult word to use in a postmodern environment, but Stoppard and Norman have managed to refigure the dramatic fundamentals of Shakespeare's play and come up with something fresh and surprising that is capable of communicating with the jaded contemporary cinemagoer on a human level. Its in-jokes are incidental. Its references to other texts are integral to the points it wants to make as a drama rather than borrowed flesh to hang on insubstantial bones. Stoppard's characteristic grasp of structure and rhythm is used well to draw attention both to ideas and to the story itself. It may provide winks to the audience, but it doesn't ask them to abandon the pleasures of a rich and meaningful script. It is largely comic, but not so much that it becomes frivolous. It is a romantic comedy which suffers from neither sappiness nor stupidity. It does not feel the need to sacrifice either romance or comedy for the sake of a well-wrought drama which incorporates both. Though it claimed the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, Shakespeare in Love could easily have been chosen for Best Dramatic Film over Saving Private Ryan.

The film is smoothly directed by John Madden (British born director of last year's hit Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown), nicely shot by Richard Greatex, and features lovely set decoration and costume designs by Jill Quertier and Sandy Powell respectively. Typically for a costume drama, everything looks impressive and polished. Thankfully the story itself is to the fore, and the cast work well to bring out the various levels of dramatic action. Fiennes is suitably intense in his second major Elizabethan part inside a year (following his stint as the Queen's lover in Elizabeth), with Paltrow marvellous in a difficult and involved role (playing a character who plays more than one role - another Shakespearian convention, of course). They are backed by a superb supporting cast which includes varied faces from stage and screen including Judi Dench as Elizabeth I, Rupert Everett as Christopher Marlowe, Simon Callow, Anthony Sher, Martin Clunes and an enjoyable Ben Affleck as a leading man who finds himself playing the supporting role. Rush and Wilkinson are also fun, with Firth making a splendid villain.

Shakespeare in Love was certainly one of the best films of 1998, and its belated release may give it just the right momentum to sneak past Saving Private Ryan in the run up to the Oscars. It is certainly among the first must-sees of 1999 in Ireland.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.