Reviewed by: Matthew Prins
|Featuring:||Joseph Fiennes … Will Shakespeare
Gwyneth Paltrow … Viola De Lesseps
Geoffrey Rush … Philip Henslowe
Tom Wilkinson … Hugh Fennyman
Judi Dench … Queen Elizabeth
Ben Affleck … Ned Alleyn
Steven O'Donnell … Lambert
Tim McMullan (Tim McMullen) … Frees
|Director:||John Madden—“Miss Sloane” (2016), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011), “The Debt” (2010)|
“Shakespeare in Love” has gotten a lot of attention over the past weeks, and after seeing the movie, I’m not quite sure why. That’s not to say that “Shakespeare…” doesn’t have its moments; it does, and I was amused by it on a number of occasions during its nearly two hours on screen. But unlike what most critics seem to believe, it is not the saviour of the romantic comedy genre.
Probably the movie’s most basic problem is that other than the fact that the main character is William Shakespeare, the plot is surprisingly ordinary. A playwright (Shakespeare) has writer’s block, making it hard for him to complete the play he is commissioned to do (“Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter”). He falls in love with one of the auditioners for the play (Viola De Lesseps), whose great beauty inspires him and helps him to write once more. But, alas! she is engaged to get married, and he is already married, although they still have passionate sex. There is nothing new here: any number of recently-graduated screenwriters could have dreamt up this mundane plot in their sleep.
The acting is universally strong, save for the title character. Joseph Fiennes runs the gamut from expressionless to expressionless as Shakespeare. He never seems very in love with Viola; quite a problem, since their relationship is the basis for the film. Only when Fiennes plays Shakespeare playing Romeo does his obvious acting ability come through. Gwyneth Paltrow is much more believable as Viola; even when dressed as a man, Viola’s affection for Shakespeare is completely evident (which could bother some Christians). All the smaller roles—especially Judi Dench’s Queen Elizabeth—are acted well and provide a more animated rest from the induced drowsyness of watching Fiennes.
It’s too bad the script doesn’t give the actors much original to work with. In particular, many of the comical devices are ones that have been used over and over again in romantic comedies over the years: A man covers his face with a sheet and talks with a bad falsetto voice in an attempt to look like a woman. A woman makes as much noise as possible in the hallway to cover up the sounds of lovemaking in the bedroom. A man climbs up a wall into a balcony to meet a woman but ends up running into someone else. Obviously, the screenwriters thought that setting today’s jokes back 400 years does makes them funny; unfortunately for us, he was quite mistaken. It’s actually the more dramatic scenes—such as the final production of “Romeo and Juliet” and when Shakespeare believes he has caused another man’s death—that are the strongest in “Shakespeare…”.
There are numerous scenes of sexuality in “Shakespeare…”—most of them involving nudity. Many Christians will no doubt be disturbed by the fact that Shakespeare and Viola are in a sexual relationship despite Shakespeare being married and Viola being engaged to another man. There is some language and a scene of violent swordplay, but neither element is omnipresent in the film. Still, there is the omnipresent and bothersome sexuality. Those who choose to attend “Shakespeare in Love” must go with the expectation that there will be skin on the screen on a quite regular basis. And despite what the plurality of critics may write, those who choose to see a less sexual example of the genre will not be scarred for life by missing the movie.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.