One of the most winning and intelligent romantic comedies of the '90s, Shakespeare in Love
is filled with such good will, sunny romance, snappy one-liners, and devilish cleverness that it's absolutely irresistible. At the 1999 Academy Awards, this dark-horse costume comedy sneaked off with seven Oscars, besting the highly favored Saving Private Ryan
for Best Picture. With tongue placed firmly in cheek, at its outset the film tracks young Will Shakespeare's overwrought battle with writer's block and the efforts of theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, in rare form) to stage Will's latest comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter
. Most of the jokes in the first one-third of the film are along these lines: Will's anachronistic therapist session, a mug inscribed "A Souvenir from Stratford-Upon-Avon," Henslowe's battles to pay off his debts, and the backstage high jinks of pre-production. However, once Will sets his eyes on the beautiful Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), joking takes a backseat to ravishing romance. Well, almost--turns out Viola wants to break into the world of male-only theater, and disguises herself as a young man to wangle herself an audition. She wins the part of Romeo and, after much misunderstanding, the playwright's heart. Soon enough, Will's pirate comedy becomes a beautiful, tragic romance, and Ethel is shoved aside for a woman named Juliet. Will and Viola's romance, however, is equal parts comedy and tragedy--he's married, and she's betrothed to the slimy Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), and it doesn't take an English major to figure out that it's not all's well that ends well.
Like Shakespeare's work itself, the film is instantly accessible to everyone, from the raucous groundlings looking for low comedy to the aesthetes hankering for some intellectual bite behind their entertainment. The way that Oscar-winning screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard enfold their story within the parameters of Romeo and Juliet (and even Twelfth Night) is nothing short of brilliant--it would take a Shakespearean scholar to dissect the innumerable parallels, oft-quoted lines, plot developments, and thematic borrowings. And most amazingly, Norman and Stoppard haven't forgotten to entertain their audience in addition to riding a Shakespearean roller coaster. Director John Madden (Mrs. Brown) reigns in his huge ensemble with a rollicking energy that keeps the film's momentum going at top speed for its entire two hours. Along the way there are small gems to be found: Ben Affleck's riotous egotistical actor, Imelda Staunton's nimble nurse, and of course Judi Dench's eight-minute, Oscar-winning turn as a truly regal Queen Elizabeth. However, the key element of Shakespeare in Love's success rests on the milky-white shoulders of its two stars. Fiennes, inexplicably overlooked at Oscar time, is a dashing Will as we might expect him at the early stage of his career, bundled full of comedy and tragedy but unsure of how to harness his talent. And as for Best Actress winner Paltrow... well, nothing she'd done before could have prepared viewers for how amazing she is here. Breathtakingly beautiful, fiercely intelligent, strong-willed, and lovestruck--it's a performance worthy of Shakespeare in more ways than one. By the film's end, you'll be thoroughly won over--and brushing up your Shakespeare with newfound ardor. --Mark Englehart