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'Shakespeare in Love': Get Thee to A Multiplex

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 1998

  Movie Critic

Shakespeare in Love
Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow take a twirl in "Shakespeare in Love." (Miramax)

John Madden
Joseph Fiennes;
Gwyneth Paltrow;
Judi Dench;
Rupert Everett;
Geoffrey Rush;
Colin Firth;
Ben Affleck
Running Time:
1 hour, 53 minutes
For nudity and sex
Picture; Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow); Supporting Actress (Judi Dench); Original Screenplay; Art Direction; Score; Costume
With "Shakespeare in Love," to see or not to see isn't the question. Where to see, that is the question.

A witty, romantic, even bawdy romp through the life of the Deadest, Whitest Male of them all, this film catches up with him before he was dead by about 30 years. He's still white, but that can't be helped, and he's still male, which is the thrust of the picture, if you know what I mean, and I'll bet you do.

But when the film opens, Shakespeare (the soulful Joseph Fiennes) isn't in love at all. Shakespeare is blocked is what Shakespeare is. Anybody who throws words at paper or screen will recognize the phenomenon: the clottage is general, like the snow falling on Ireland in the beginning of Joyce's "The Dead." No stinking words come. They sit somewhere in his cranium, glued together with a sticky yolk of self-loathing, despair and the sloth that dare not speak its name. He does what all writers do in such a fix: He writes his byline 600 times.

He's waiting for that damned muse to liberate him. Just like a woman, she's late. In fact it appears that she may stand him up altogether, the woman's eternal prerogative. She is not to be trifled with, and so we find him, in his twenties, a gangling fletch of a man given to hanging about taverns, enjoying the rough company of other raffish, irresponsible theatrical types. (Geoffrey Rush as a producer is particularly funny, as is Tom Wilkinson as a money man who becomes seduced by the theater.) When he's not devising energetic lies about his progress on the new play to cover up the despair that comes when he sits down with quill in hand, he's trying not to slip in the mud and dung. (This ain't your Uncle Jack Warner's Elizabethan age; it's a mudhole with a slum and lots of pigs in it. Everybody bathes regularly once a year, whether they need it or not.)

He's stuck on a comedy: It's called . . . "Romeo and Ethel."

Does any of this sound a trifle familiar? Some 30 years ago, a young British playwright named Tom Stoppard made an international reputation on an item called "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," a pure dazzler that emanated from a brilliant conceit. Its setting was "Hamlet," but as observed from two minor characters' points of view. They became increasingly aware they were being manipulated by a strange force toward an inescapable doom. "Shakespeare in Love" uses a substantially similar conceit, though it's more emotional and less intellectual. And unsurprisingly, the brilliant Stoppard is the screenwriter (with Marc Norman). This story is somehow set in "Romeo and Juliet," which is to say it fabricates a real Elizabethan universe and from that it charts the process by which Shakespeare extrapolates from his life, with a considerable amplification from his emotions, the theatrical events that will become art.

His Juliet is a wealthy young noblewoman named Viola de Lesseps (played charmingly by Gwyneth Paltrow) who is essentially to be sold off to a powerful but penniless and stupid lord named Wessex (Colin Firth). When Will sees her, it's love at first insight. He starts writing that night, and his wooing of her becomes the inspiration for his script, including a silly nurse, a balcony scene and squabbles between acting troupes that emulate the clan warfare of his own private Italy.

In this loose situation, the structure of "Romeo and Juliet" has been approximated: A boy from one house (not Montagues but the house of the theater) falls in love with a girl from another house (not Capulets but the house of nobility) when such union is both taboo and clearly doomed. They fight against the tricks of fate, ultimately achieve a total and all-encompassing love, but know (as we do) that it must end tragically, and that the progeny of all that pain will be a text called "Romeo and Juliet."

Yet that description makes it sound more diagrammatic and postmodern than it is. It plays like knockabout farce, with swordfights, tavern wenches whose D-cups runneth over, couplings and uncouplings, drinking bouts, issues of theater history, mix-ups, brawls and a little bit of nastiness regarding Shakespeare's competitor Christopher Marlowe (who was gay and is played by the gay Rupert Everett in a nice moment of sheer touche!). The movie becomes something quite rare and magical: a text about a text that is also full of life. In other words, it's a true first: It's both postmodern and fun!

Its throwaway stuff is fabulous: I like the idea that Will first falls for Viola when she's disguised as a boy. This is puzzling to him and calls him to question his own sexuality when he writes his sonnets, but it wittily plays upon and explains the lurking suspicion that Willie S. was gay and that the sonnets were directed to another fella in tights. Then there's the whole game of cross-dressing, as she pretends to be a boy to act in a production (of "Romeo and Ethel," which magically becomes "Romeo and Juliet") and at one point he pretends to be a woman. These devices anticipate the next play in the Shakespeare canon, "Twelfth Night."

Judi Dench, who starred in director John Madden's "Mrs. Brown" as another Big Bad Queen, has a nice role as Queen Elizabeth, a chalky-faced monster with rotted teeth and the fastest mind this side of Sir Isaac Newton. Like her Victoria, Dench's Liz is tougher than Vito Corleone and brooks no claptrap from anybody.

But I suppose the secret meaning of "Shakespeare in Love" is its biggest attraction: It restores to centrality of consciousness one of the great geniuses of our civilization. It makes us care for his greatness, for his passion, for his worth. In no uncertain terms, it tells us Willie Boy is still here.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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