For some reason, when most people think of William Shakespeare they think of long weeks sitting in English class being forced to go over the most tedious parts of Hamlet or King Lear. On the other hand, the new movie Shakespeare in Love has nipples in it. Most Shakespeare doesn’t come with nipples. Far from dry literature, Shakespeare in Love is one of the year’s best romances, with plenty of good laughs and well-acted drama to round things out, and without the same desperately serious tone that most period pictures have which allows them to be enjoyed by critics and no one else.
The premise of Shakespeare in Love is pretty cute, but the movie succeeds anyway. The year is 1593, and we meet young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), a struggling young playwright who, despite a fair share of fans, is overshadowed by his rival Christopher Marlowe. Under pressure to produce a new blockbuster play, he begins work on what is to become Romeo and Juliet. The play almost becomes a washout, but Will is saved due to the intervention of his “muse,” Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful young woman about to be married to a greedy fop. The parallels between Will and Viola’s doomed marriage and Shakespeare’s actual plays gives the film a vibrant, poetic edge.
The film’s actors are all top-notch. Joseph Fiennes (Ralph Fiennes’ younger brother) puts forth his claim to Heartthrob of the Year with this part (along with his supporting role in Elizabeth). However, it’s Gwyneth Paltrow who’s best of all, finally proving that there actually is a pretty good actor behind that pretty face. The eclectic cast also includes Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush as a slimy theater owner (he has most of the film’s best lines), Colin Firth as Viola’s villainous fiancÃ© and Dame Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth, a crusty broad with a heart of gold. Ben Affleck appears as well, as an egotistical actor; he’s a lot less annoying here than he was in Armageddon.
The film’s fine acting is supported by a script that’s clever, but not too clever â€“ the writers are more interested in crafting a romantic drama than with seeing how many Shakespearean allusions they can cram into every scene. While it is true that the working title of Shakespeare’s new play is “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” and while this kind of Monty Pythonesque humor is okay, it can get old awfully fast. Fortunately, authors Tom Stoppard (author of such plays as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and Marc Norman are smart enough to keep the humor balanced with the film’s other elements to produce a richly satisfying whole. Similarly, director John Madden (not the football one, the one who directed last year’s Mrs. Brown) tosses in a good number of clever sight gags and keeps the pace lively so that the dramatic thrust never gets bogged down.
In the end, Shakespeare in Love bows down to history and suggests that in order to write his masterpieces, Shakespeare had to suffer through heartbreak and loss just like anyone else. Shakespeare in Love succeeds above the typical romantic comedy by being, strangely, more romantic and real than most romances set in the present; the relationship between Will and Viola is a lot more convincing and less contrived than other romantic comedies. Above all this is a movie with perspective; Shakespeare in Love knows that in the long run, a broken heart doesn’t mean much, unless it can be transformed into something universal. When Shakespeare finishes Romeo and Juliet and continues with his writing career, you get a sense that this is a romantic story that actually means something; Shakespeare in Love is one of the year’s best pictures because, in between jokes, it takes its romance seriously.