From the known facts of Shakespeare's life, scholarly theories and his own imagination, screenwriter/novelist William Boyd has fashioned a fine speculative drama about the creation of the Sonnets. He's done this by projecting the poems' concerns onto the lives of two historical figures, "Will S." and "Will H." (William Herbert, future Earl of Pembroke), and an invented one, a Frenchwoman named Lucie - the "Dark Lady." Yet this 85' TV film is best enjoyed not as an attempted solution to "The Mystery of Shakespeare and his Sonnets" (as the subtitle has it) but as a fictional story on themes of love, lust, disease and mortality, and on the relationship between personal experience and artistic creation. And while there is plenty of wit and humor in both script and performances, the choice of title - from Sonnet 129: "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action..." - signals the fundamentally serious tone of the project.
Though handsomely designed and shot, "A Waste of Shame" is less a grand period spectacle or costume drama like "Shakespeare in Love" than a modest, intimate chamber piece for three actors. Rupert Graves makes a wonderful Will S., suggesting in subtle ways the complex character of a "country boy" who has learned the proper way to act (in all senses) in order to further his career in London. In voiceover, Graves reads fragments from the Sonnets, and reads them beautifully, yet some of the most memorable moments are silent, with the camera focused on his highly expressive face. Tom Sturridge as Will H. projects the right air of adolescent androgyny in the early scenes, and later finds a satisfying balance between aristocratic arrogance, seductive charm and deference to artistic genius. Indira Varma conveys both Lucie's sexual allure and her hardheaded practicality convincingly.
The strong supporting cast (with roughly a dozen named roles) includes Zoe Wanamaker as a warm Countess of Pembroke, Anna Chancellor an embittered Anne Hathaway, Andrew Tiernan a fiercely competitive Ben Jonson and Ian Hughes as publisher Thomas Thorpe, whose dismay when Will S. brings him poems instead of a play is delightful. John McKay has done a fine job directing, and there's an exceptionally good musical score by Kevin Sargent. In the credits, you will see listed as "Academic Advisor" Katherine Duncan-Jones, who as editor has written an excellent introduction to the current Arden Shakespeare edition of the Sonnets. One of the pleasures of "A Waste of Shame" is that it may prompt you to (re-)read these extraordinary poems.