Thursday, May 2, 2013

Watching Oscar: Shakespeare in Love

Film: Shakespeare in Love
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Shakespeare in Love is a film that I’ve consciously not watched, mostly from the intense backlash the film received starting the moment it won Best Picture. For a lot of people, it’s proof positive that a good campaign around Oscar time can work. After all, in the minds of many, this is a frilly period romance that took down Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. This sort of backlash isn’t really that uncommon. Any film that gets a huge amount of acclaim experiences it at least a little, and when there are other worthy films involved, the backlash is bigger, stronger, and lasts longer.

But that’s hardly the fault of the film. Shakespeare in Love is very much a period piece, and very much a Harlequin romance. I refuse to use the term “chick flick” because I think it’s demeaning, but when that term is used, this is the sort of film that people think of. It’s a film that trades initially on the romance, plyas up the romance throughout, and even contains an additional romance within the romance, since it’s as much about Romeo and Juliet as it is about young Billy the Shake finding an agreeable sheath for his spear.

Anyway, Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is the playwright for Phillip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), who is badly in debt. He’s working on a comedy tentatively called Romeo and Ethel, but when he discovers his current mistress is cheating on him, he burns the script and starts over. Regardless, casting begins for the play immediately. The part of Romeo goes to a young man named Thomas Kent, who (paralleling many of Shakespeare’s plays) is actually a woman named Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). Frankly, she’s about as convincing as a man as I would be as a supermodel, but this all fits with the “life imitating art” theme of the script. It’s an important point, though, because a woman on stage was considered the height of indecency at the time.

Naturally, Will chases her down, discovers she’s not only a woman but also an ardent fan of his writing, and the two are immediately lovers. This is a problem for Viola because she is betrothed to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), who is bluntly marrying her for the family money. Wessex plans to take Viola with him to his new plantations in Virginia, which means that both Viola and Will know that their romance is tragically doomed.

And so Ethel becomes Juliet and the play becomes a tragedy. Shakespeare makes a bet with Wessex that a play can be produced that shows the true nature of love (which becomes Romeo and Juliet, of course), so that figures in as well. And there’s the scandal of a woman on stage, which comes back when the boy playing Juliet hits puberty and his voice changes. Oh, and Queen Elizabeth I (Dame Judi Dench) shows up for a couple of scenes, steals the show every moment she’s in it, and seems to know everything at all times about everyone.

It’s difficult for Shakespeare in Love to not be at least entertaining, since it comes with a script written by the great Tom Stoppard, and it is entertaining. It’s also completely self-aware, and makes some jokes that are specific to knowing about Shakespeare’s life and history. Lines from what becomes Romeo and Juliet are shouted out by someone decrying the lack of moral fiber in society at the start of the film, for instance. In fact, the entire meta nature of the gender switching is a sop to one of Shakespeare’s favorite plot points. Someone can tell me how many times this appears in his plays—I don’t know off the top of my head; I just know it’s “lots.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest that one of the draws here is a decent amount of nudity from Gwyneth Paltrow in her 15-years-ago Gwyneth Paltrow prime. Hey, it’s just the truth.

The biggest issue that most people have with Shakespeare in Love is that it won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan and/or The Thin Red Line. I get that. It’s not a bad film, certainly not nearly as bad as a lot of the backlash, but it’s not nearly either of those films. It’s a tragic and bittersweet little romance that contains elements of a much more tragic and less sweet romance with which most people have at least a passing familiarity. And it is romantic in that grand tradition of doomed love.

If anything, it’s a little too clever for its own good, but that’s also probably what made a lot of people like it. When you put in some asides and jokes that a good part of your audience will a) understand and b) will think themselves smart for understanding, you get a lot of people who feel justified in liking what you’ve made and in denigrating others for not getting the smart people stuff. I don’t object to this in general (I like to feel smart, too), but there might be too much of it here.

But hey, great costuming, and it’s always fun to watch Judi Dench kick some ass, even if only with witty repartee.

Why to watch Shakespeare in Love: It’s sweeter than you probably remember it.
Why not to watch: It’s also a little dippier than you remember.


  1. Steve, I think that many are too nasty towards Shakespeare in Love because of its Best Picture win and forget that it's actually a very well-written movie. I haven't seen it since the original viewing in the theaters, so I wonder how it would hold up. I expect it would do just fine.

    On a side note, I appreciate your choice to not use "chick flick", which is one of my least favorite phrases and is used way too often. Bravo!

    1. This is a film that suffered a lot of backlash, sort of like Titanic did. People tend to forget that there's often a reason these films get acclaim in the first place--they're good.

      "Chick flick" is an unfortunate term that's easy to use because it's rhyme-y and easy to say. But it's also pretty degrading.

  2. "The biggest issue that most people have with Shakespeare in Love is that it won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan and/or The Thin Red Line."

    I completely agree with this. And your bit about "how can a sweet little period piece beat out a serious war film" is also right on the nose. It's almost like the genre itself is reason enough for many people to hate it for winning.

    As you know from prior comments, I love this film. I have no problem with it beating Saving Private Ryan, a movie that I also like a lot. As you said, SiL is written as if by Shakespeare himself. His own plays had both elements for the educated and for the "groundlings" (the common people who stood on the ground in front of the stage.) SiL has these same kinds of elements.

    You are also correct on Shakespeare having gender switch themes in several plays. One of the most prominent is Twelfth Night, whose female lead is named Viola, and which gets referenced at the end of SiL.

    I loved the "that a woman!" scene, especially when the big burly guy playing the nurse does this little, very feminine "me?" hand gesture in response.

    In fact, the only criticism I have of this film is the historical goof - there were no British colonies in Virginia in the 1590s. That's just me being anal, though. It was necessary for the end of the film to happen.

    1. It's a difficult movie to dislike completely. A lot of that is that it's just a charming film, but a great deal of it comes from the clever screenplay. Tom Stoppard is a hell of a good writer.

      This is one of those cases where I'd have picked a different film (probably The Thin Red Line) for the winner, but I can't be terribly upset by this winning. I understand why it won, and it's not like it's a terrible film.

  3. I thought 1998 was one of the strongest years ever for the Oscar nominations. I liked all the movies. I was rooting against Saving Private Ryan because I thought it was a little long and I started to like it less and less s it went on. Everything else was PURE MOVIE GOLD. Especially Shakespeare in Love and The Thin Red Line.

    But ultimately I was rooting for Shakespeare in Love.

    1. You're not alone (see Chip's comment above). I like this film, but I'd have probably voted for The Thin Red Line.

    2. I thought Thin Red Line was vastly superior to Saving Private Ryan, and I was surprised at how many of my friends got defensive about it.

      As a matter of fact, I remember saying at the time that I had wanted to see a war movie like The Thin Red Line ever since I discovered war movies.

      That said, my favorite movie from 1998 is The Big Lebowski.

    3. I heartily agree with that choice.