Shakespeare in Love
by Jason Morrison
Shakespeare in Love is overrated.
Having said that, let me clarify that it is a good movie. But with 13 academy award nominations, you should expect something as entertaining but a bit more interesting.
The movie is a love story based loosely on the life and times of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), a playwright of some fame who lived in Elizabethan England. As the story opens, Will is having a hard time with a bout of massive writer's block and his new play, "Romeo and Ethel the Sea Pirate's Daughter," is due immediately. As casting continues for the play (though it's still not written), Will and company discover a new "actor," Thomas Kent (Gwyneth Paltrow), who would make perfect Romeo. Kent, however, is really Viola De Lesseps, a beautiful young aristocrat and fan of his plays.
And here we have the first (of several) dilemmas: in 16th century England, women are not allowed to act in plays, not even playing women. When Will meets and falls in love with Viola (much like Romeo in the finished play), the problem is compacted: though she loves him and he her, she is set to marry the well-connected Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) in a few weeks' time.
So as the two work on the play and consummate their love, Wessex becomes jealous and threatens Will, a rival acting troupe comes to settle their differences and Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) herself, giving permission for the marriage, gets involved in a bet over whether a play can ever portray true love. Throw in the myriad of actors and other characters and there's quite a lot going on.
But it never gets overcomplicated, confusing or convoluted. This by itself is a triumph-but more importantly, this romance is actually quite romantic. It's easy to believe in Viola's love for Will, and this is one of the few times love at first sight does not seem so far fetched. This is a fairly high complement, coming from yours truly. I usually go into romances with a critical eye-I find many of them expect the audience to just assume the characters will fall in love, with little real development. Shakespeare in Love, however, is quite good.
Much is due to Fiennes and Paltrow. The pair have a great on-screen chemistry together. Fiennes plays Shakespeare as a (sometimes over-) passionate writer with a unique intensity. And though Paltrow is never once convincing as a man, she is very convincing as the star-cross'd lover.
So why did I say it's overrated? Three times so far I've been asked how familiar I am with Shakespeare-and I've read this in more than one review, as well: supposedly you can get so much more out of the film if you are "familiar" with Shakespeare. Well I've never played Hamlet, but I have read more than a few of Will's plays, and the little touches are there. Just as Shakespeare knew to balance dramatic tension with comic relief, so does Shakespeare in Love: often by using bit players, just as old Will did. And if you're familiar with the life of the Bard, you'll no doubt be interested in the film's speculation and interpretation of his rivalry with Christopher Marlowe, the political climate of the times, etc. But to tell the truth, most of what's going on is fairly obvious most of the time.
This is not the sort of film you need to analyze on the way back from the theater. And in many ways it falls prey to clichés--Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson), the tough moneylender who backs the performance, becomes a fidgeting softy upon being offered a minor role. Queen Elizabeth's intervention at times screams Deus ex Machina. Oh, it's not intrusive, but with the raves I had been hearing I expected something more. The cinematography, for instance, was fairly conventional considering the beautiful scenery it had to work with-and yet it's nominated for an Oscar.
Still, it's a wonderfully entertaining film. It's witty, funny and romantic. But don't buy all the hype-it's no Hamlet.
(Out of five)