Shakespeare In Love
Rating -

Comedy/Romance (US/UK); 1998; Rated R; 122 Minutes

Joseph Fiennes: William Shakespeare
Gwyneth Paltrow: Viola De Lesseps
Geoffery Rush: Philip Henslowe
Ben Affleck: Ned Alleyn
Judi Dench: Queen Elizabeth
Colin Firth: Lord Wessex

Produced by Linda Bruce, Mark Cooper, Donna Gigliotti, Lulie Goldstein, Marshall Herskovitz, Marc Norman, David Parfitt, Meryle Poster, Bob Weinsted, Harvey Weinstein and Edward Zwick; Directed by John Madden; Screenwritten by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"Shakespeare In Love" begins with words on the screen telling us about two competing English theaters. One is a successful playhouse that has the upper-hand in brilliant actors and playwrights. The other is a low-rent theater called the Rose, and it's owned by a snaggle-toothed, blundering fool named Philip Henslowe (Geoffery Rush) who obviously has problems handling his finances. In the opening scene, we meet him backstage in his playhouse, tied up, with his boots sitting on a pile of hot coals. The people who have him bound and gagged are apparently some of those unfortunate ones whom Philip owes money to. Henslowe's decision? Oh, he has a great new play coming in from Shakespeare that could take care of all the finance problems. When asked about it, Henslowe just continues to assure them, "Shakespeare is finishing it at this very moment."

Sadly, dear old Will, played by Joseph Fiennes, is having a little trouble with the writing. He's got the title all ready (he calls it "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter"), and he knows the plot (a romance involving a pirate rebel and his child in love with the opposing side), but he seems to be at a loss for words when he touches his feather pen. He tries and tries and tries with all his might to squeeze one word out onto the paper, and he comes up blank. Heck, he's even at a loss of inspiration when he's practicing his signature. He crumbles the paper and tosses it across the room, landing beside a human skull. "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well..."

Shakespeare is at that point in his life when writer's block seems to put a stop to all of his artistic integrity. He is told that he needs a muse to inspire his heroine (in those days, I guess most of the inspiration for literature came from women), and when he thinks he has found her backstage of a production of "The Two Gentlemen Of Verona," she turns out to be a bed-hopping tramp who cannot keep her dress down below her waste. So much for inspiration.

Meanwhile, we meet three more important players in the movie. The first is Viola De Lesseps, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, her nurse, and Lord Wessex, the man who has been chosen to wed Viola. She, of course, wants nothing to do with a man she doesn't love, but that's not all. She's also a fan of the theater, of Shakespeare's plays about romance and adventure. Then again, she's not too fond of men always having to play the female parts (in those days, it was considered 'improper,' or inappropriate for women to even be on the stage). She comes to the conclusion that, if there's ever to be a true feeling of romance in a play as poetic as Shakespeare's, the women have to be in it. But that's impossible. So, what's one to do? Masquerade as a man!

Then there's an audition for Shakespeare's play. At the auditions, Viola enters as Thomas Kent, a 'man' so convincing on stage that it stuns even Shakespeare himself. He follows him to the De Lesseps mansion, but quickly loses him in the crowd. That's because, once home, Viola re-transforms herself back to her original guise. Not like that stops Shakespeare, though. He takes one look at her, and falls instantly in love. Wessex, her suitor, warns him that, if he comes anywhere near his 'property,' he'll slice his throat open without a second thought.

There's an inspiration immediately off of his attraction to her. She's beautiful, poetic, a lover of his plays, and a romantic as well. Outside, when she sits atop her balcony, he woos her with lyrical metaphors that obviously seem to be the motivation for that famous balcony scene in Shakespeare's greatest romance tragedy.

There's a few other subplots along the way, equally as observant and important to the structure of the storyline, but the real theme here is Shakespeare's inspiration for "Romeo and Ethel," which, thanks to Ned, the man who plays Mercutio, is renamed to what we now know as "Romeo And Juliet."

The approach of such lyrically and emotionally provocative material is difficult to handle even in the most experience writer's hands, but Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard pull all the string possible to make this script as good as it can be. In other words, they've turned it into a masterwork; an Oscar contender.

What gives it that honor is not only the wit used in the script, but also the knowledge represented in the style of directing. All visual things (like the backdrops, the sets, and the costumes) look like they are in the exact time periods. It's as if the people who made them or designed them grew up in the 16th century and returned in this life to design everything exactly as they had remembered it. To get that feeling of real life out of a fable mocked by a period like Elizabethan England is no small accomplishment. The beauty and style of the sets are enough to make sixty sequels to this movie, just as long as we'd get to see them again.

We've all witnessed Shakespeare's own work transformed magnificently to the movie screen. We've witnessed the witchcraft in "MacBeth," the justice in "Hamlet," the greed in "King Lear," and, of course, the romance in "Romeo And Juliet." This, though, is the first time we get to meet the man behind all those literary masterpieces. Shakespeare is certainly high on a list of literary inspirations we'd most like to meet, and with "Shakespeare In Love," that urge feels like it has been fulfilled. This is a fictionalized story, though, so how can it feel like the real thing? The writing is brilliant; the acting is masterful; the direction is breathtaking; the costumes are beautiful; and every little detail in the film is charming and witty. What would happen if Shakespeare himself saw it with his own eyes? There's no doubt that even he'd give high praise to the filmmakers.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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