Shakespeare in Love has been lavished with an extraordinarily talented creative group. CV loved director John Madden’s earlier films, Mrs. Brown and the sadly underrated, extremely powerful Ethan Frome, both rather serious films. Here Mr. Madden brings his skills together with the great British writer of literary comedy and farce, Tom Stoppard, whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, also a riff on Shakespearean themes, was brought to the screen in 1990. Add to the stew a cast that includes Simon Callow, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Joseph Fiennes, Colin Firth, and Gwyneth Paltrow and CV swooned in anticipation of a giddy evening of intelligent hilarity.
We were not disappointed in the least. On the contrary, Shakespeare in Love turns out to be something far more than anticipated: a tour de force of filmmaking that seamlessly weaves bawdy, witty comedy together with believably passionate romance and the poetry of Shakespeare, all coming together into a unified and utterly unique entertainment.
The premise is clever. Young playwright Shakespeare (Fiennes) has writer’s block and can’t seem to finish his work in progress, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. Even a visit to his "counselor" – read shrink jokes here, even to the hour glass running – doesn’t seem to help. But a forbidden romance with the beautiful and elsewhere betrothed daughter (Paltrow) of a wealthy local merchant inspires Shakespeare to turn his comedy to tragedy, as it follows the inevitable course of their affair. Fiennes and Paltrow are both young, fresh, and beautiful. They are as convincing doing farce as they are being passionately in love, and, indeed, playing the roles of Romeo and Juliet on the Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is well served.
A subplot on the competitive relationship between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) meshes nicely into the spin of events. Additional complications are introduced, of course, and the witty lines, frequent allusions, and low puns come fast and furious. The entire piece is suffused with a love of the theater, and stage humor is delivered in profusion. Sets and costuming are extravagantly handsome, without neglecting to keep Shakespeare’s hands stained with writer’s ink.
In other supporting roles, Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth is wry, Ben Affleck as a star actor is commanding and sexy, and Colin Firth is suitably hateful as the opportunistic villain.
This was a problem film in the making. Originally started in 1993, it went through delays and changes of casting and director. Often, under such circumstances, the product turns out to be a disaster. Somehow, here, with a deep bow to Mr. Madden, it has turned into a holiday gift for us all, a film that will amuse and beguile, and doubtlessly create a generation of new fans for Will Shakespeare.