Reviewed by: Matthew Prins
“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.
Year of Release—1998
I found this movie to be well-written, employing many of the same devices Shakespeare himself used in writing his own plays. While most of the humor was not of belly-laugh caliber, it was witty. What disturbs me the most, both about the movie and the Christian responses to it which I have read, is the failue to condemn that which is central to the movie.
The heart of the movie is an adulterous relationship, which we are asked to approve of. The romantic tuggings of the movie upon our hearts are not as effective if we do not give our approval. William Shakespeare is *married* in this movie, and he is having an affair with a woman who is engaged.
As Christians, we should not be so quick to overlook such an important point which the movie itself so quickly dismisses, precisely because the movie itself so quickly dismisses it. So while the movie may be well-written and well-acted, I cannot in good conscience recommend it.
—Justin Keller, age 25
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie: the drama was intense and the humour brilliant. Anyone with a love of Shakespeare’s plays will have a lot of fun trying to pick out the references to his other plays (e.g the laundrywoman from “The Merry Wives of Windsor”). Notice also that the woman whom Will “loves” and is “betrayed” by is called Rosaline, a character in R&J whom Romeo finds to be cold and distant.
And if you have some knowledge of the history of the period you will love details such as as the rivalry between Shakespeare and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe. I thought the movie did a good job of showing how a man’s creativity is heightened by his pain, and how the agony of forbidden love transforms his writing.
My only complaint is Will and Viola’s constant “jumping into bed,” as a friend put it. The love story would have been stronger if it had also been pure, and the characters' pain more intense and more believable if they’d had to restrain themselves. It’s still worth watching, I feel, but only with a good measure of “mental censorship.”
—Buvana, age 21
This film (Rated-R for a reason as are all Rated-R films) portrayed the tale of “Romeo and Juliet” in such a manner that, for the first time, I was able to understand a little bit of the allure of the classic tale. For a film to cause me to say of “Romeo and Juliet” (the artistic height of romance-novel trash), “I can understand why they felt and acted the way they did” is truly a feat worthy of acclaim. In no other film rendition of the Bard’s most famous work was I remotely moved by the lovers' plight, nor did I pity their characters' mutual demise in the finale. This one moved me.
Of course, the in-jokes were funny as well (memories of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”). As to Karen’s comment that unmarried people should not see this film due to Miss Paltrow’s (completely unnecessary to the story) nude scenes: I should imagine it to be greater detriment to the married audience. Personally, I was unmoved by the scenes (perhaps she is taste for which I have yet to acquire).
—Seth T. Hahne, age 25
My girlfriends and I enjoyed this movie. When we went out to eat afterward we were all disappointed in the same thing—it could have been a lot cleaner and still good! The sex could have been implied, the language toned down, clothes stayed on and we would have still enjoyed it. We just wish Hollywood would clean up their act.
We thought Joseph and Gwenyth did a great job. We could tell that Judith and Ben were having fun with their roles! The costumes and sets were great.
—Janet, age 40
As a person that reads Shakespeare for the love of it, I truly enjoyed this film. I too thought the nudity added nothing to the story, and wish it hadn’t been there. I would certainly consider not letting young people see it, and that is truly a shame, because the rest of the film is clever, visually exciting, and just plain fun!
—Trudie, age 51
I wish I had not seen this movie. Gwyneth does an excellent job, but there was way too much nudity. The main reason I am so upset is that is went to the christiancritic.com and there was no mention of a lot of nudity. In fact, I don’t recall any mention of nudity! Save your eyes and mind, and please no unmarried people should see this and, in my humble opinion, this is not a gray area for christians. They simply should not attend. P.S. Thank you for all your reviews. I find I can count on them to be accurate.
—Karen, age 45
I also agree that the nudity was a bit much. But overall, the cinematography and the filmmaking were outstanding! The screenplay was brilliant, especially working the life of the author into the life of his story—and most often, in the subtlest of ways. Joseph Fiennes was a superb actor, many times giving small gestures to portray great feeling. Gwyneth also did an amazing job, by portraying the injustice of her marriage, and her overwhelming love for Shakespeare.
The aforementioned over-acting that was evident was because of the time period—men had to play women roles, and so therefore, they were often done without realism.
Overall, I enjoyed this movie very much, and aside for the nudity, I completely understand why it was nominated so often for Oscars!
—Allison Hume, age 19
Although I agree with the review of Shakespeare in Love for being all too sexual, I would have to disagree with the rest of the review. I thought that this movie is a wonderful example of a witty screenplay. Turning a much loved classic such as “Romeo and Juliet” into a fictional story about how the play was written is truly awesome. The humor is oustanding, and the overall attitude of the film was tremendous. The film allowed me to get a closer glimpse into the time period of Shakespeare’s writings.
—Jason Lee, age 21