Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)


No, really. This is a Good Movie. Not that you remember that if your experience was tied strictly to its controversial Oscar upset, one that still gets people wound up today if you bring it up, or its relationship to the same year’s Elizabeth — which is so much bunk, by the way. Neither film is straight history but Shakespeare in Love doesn’t even claim to be. It’s a lipstick-sealed Sweet Valley High novel, a romantic fantasy for the adolescent heart, in the guise of great costume-drama stuffiness that it has a field day deconstructing. It certainly succeeds at this with greater professionalism and wit than Baz Luhrmann’s films, with the result that it can pretend to be a light date movie for grownups when in fact it’s just a mass of charged hormones. There’s no better vessel through which to channel all this than Joseph Fiennes’ delightfully simplified, faintly Chaplinesque take on someone’s idea of William Shakespeare — why him? I assume because four plus centuries have yet to prevent his plays from being the barest expression of humanity in the written word, and that manifests more vividly in simplest truths than harshest ones.

(Why do all movie couples who are supposed to be Deeply in Love only ever have missionary-position sex? In this movie other positions are depicted within other, more “lustful” characters but really only as comic relief. Presumably a film like this has some merit in its target audience as an aphrodisiac, right? I’d have less suspicion of such a goal if it seemed like any “romantic comedy” ever, even a relatively decent and good-hearted one like this, was daring enough now to actually tackle the mechanics of a romantic and sexual relationship the way it might actually happen. It’s hard to imagine because we don’t really know what that would look like in a mainstream film, but I bet it would be refreshing to do something besides the ambiguous rubbing and generic proclamations, physical and verbal, of affection that we currently get. Representation’s a powerful thing, but vagueness nixes it — the people in these comedies don’t act the way real people do. In the sixteenth century or now.)

This is such corn — from Queen Elizabeth’s glamorous kindly old witch routine to all the BBC character actors reciting their way through each instance of momentary zaniness, its indebtedness to a vaudevilian populism harks back to things far adrift from Shakespeare’s time or context; it would have been interesting to make a film like this reference or ingratiate itself with his work in anything more than a superficial way, or in a way that isn’t actually a bit reductive of his work outside of Romeo and Juliet. But all this aside, it’s so crafty a film! I’ve little awareness of John Madden’s other work but he seems to have embraced this with the best and fullest kind of showmanship. It scores because it has fun with its ridiculous premise and yet takes its emotional content seriously — everything it depicts feels truly urgent, with the swirling camera in the rehearsal sequences and the theatrical climax all strikingly absorbing and vibrant.

Since the entire plot of the film is laid out in its title, the story doesn’t merit much talk here, but the story’s hardly the point of something like this anyway. It’s in the lovely little scenes or the watered down atmosphere evocative of our post-Monty Python notions of the Renaissance in England so skillfully integrated into the narrative with a calmed-down Mel Brooks or Moonlighting spirit. It’s in the quite splendidly androgynous performance of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose passion and chemistry with Fiennes fully justifies his somewhat cartoonish portrayal. It’s all quite a delight, and quite easy to swallow, so little wonder that it’d be the rare comedy to achieve top success with the Academy, tongue-in-cheek nudges to the pseudo-intellectual class and all. It exists in that nebulous zone where the pretentious and middlebrow become indistinguishable from the grandly wide-reaching and universal, and sure, it’s well-oiled and obvious, but at least it isn’t phony and it remains fun to follow and chuckle at even on a few revisits. (I’ve somehow seen it three times now despite having little personal attachment to it; I enjoyed it more this time.)

So in case you can’t tell, I’m slightly won over by this, especially thanks to Paltrow. I will go on record saying it deserved Best Picture more than Saving Private Ryan, an utter failure of a film — the script is vastly better, maybe because Tom Stoppard is so much more skilled a writer than Robert Rodat. But it deserved it less than the calculated but adventurous Elizabeth, which still isn’t really so great a movie. So in the strange netherworld of AMPAS’ impressions of what’s happening in the world of movies, this rates above average, but it’s only fleetingly pleasurable as a film. Fleeting pleasures are better than none. Didn’t Shakespeare say something about that?

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