As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the Best Picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable.
Hollywood, of course, has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully, nor, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously, or their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the bard’s misguided lust for a cuckolding costume girl. (The film’s insinuation that the play’s plot was conceived partially by Christopher Marlowe puts it in dark company with Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, a screaming, agonizing temper tantrum thrown against all things based in intellect and humanism.) And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination.
Madden’s film, with its heavy bouts of backstage business, inevitably doubles as a satire of filmmaking, and its divisions of labor and characterizations are telling: Shakespeare is a louse, the actors are either untalented amateurs or talented egomaniacs, and the various stagehands are either whores or nobodies. The most lovable and redeemable characters are the producer, a money lender named Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson), and the owner of the famed Rose Theater, Phil Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), both of whom show bravery, foresight, and ostensible calm where the artists they pay and manage throw epic tizzies over minor inconveniences. Most ironically, there’s no real director: Shakespeare, Fennyman, Henslowe, and lead actor Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck), a take-off of Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn, seem in teetering control, at various moments, of what’s happening on the Rose’s stage. The fact that this will undoubtedly be a touchstone film in what will become the legend of Harvey Weinstein is incredibly fitting.
One might take the minor details (the thrust of a pen into a soft plum tomato for moisture, the holding of Henslowe’s feet against burning coals as torture) and the enjoyable, energetic performances as consolation, but Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s script allows for nary a light touch from this formidable cast. It’s not enough that, for instance, Colin Firth’s humorless suitor constantly refers to Viola as a thing that will bear his children and have a life of hapless comfort, which, in his eyes, she should be grateful for; he is also a tobacco farmer with plantations in Virginia, immediately tying him both to cancer and slavery. The only character of any noticeable nuance or subtlety is Judi Dench’s Queen Elizabeth I, at once stiff and obnoxious, hesitantly empathetic and steely, sassy and sexless; had Lynn Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, and Kathy Bates not been nominated as well, her Oscar win would almost make sense.
Where The King’s Speech took questionable liberties with fact and history, Shakespeare in Love depicts an uneven literary fantasia that picks precise moments to express very real draconian social constructs and traditions, the benefits of which are nothing more than further delineation of heroes and villains in the film’s dramatic thrust. The result is that all the recognizable happiness and pain in Shakespeare in Love‘s final quarter evaporates within seconds of implementation, a near-imperceptible justice for the great poet the film treats as a sniveling brat who got his knuckles rapped.
Lionsgate has done a highly admirable job highlighting what is most impressive in John Madden's film, namely the technical aspects and design. The detailing is fantastic, catching beautiful textures and stitching in the bold, colorful costumes. In fact, colors in general are remarkable, from the darker reds, blues, greens, and purples of the men's costumes to the lighter golds, whites, and silvers of Gwyneth Paltrow's costumes; the Queen's costumes have amazingly varied colors that pop brilliantly. The settings are equally stunning, especially the interior and backstage of the Rose. The audio is quite good as well, with the quick, frothy dialogue clean and crisp out front. Effects and Stephen Warbeck's big, sumptuous score are perfectly balanced in back. For those who treasure the movie, I can't imagine they could ask for much more from this transfer.
For whatever his flaws as a filmmaker, and there are some alarming ones, Madden delivers a quite engrossing, lighthearted, and genuinely interesting commentary here, going over the production and providing a bevy of anecdotes about the film. The second commentary, featuring a litany of cast members and crewmembers, is a bit too congested and the moments of insight are spotty, to be kind. The featurettes are harmless, dumb, and shamelessly self-congratulatory; the deleted scenes are fun but far from memorable. Trailers and TV spots are also included.
The environs and costumes look superb on the Blu-ray debut of Shakespeare in Love, making the sloppy, repugnant film they encase all the more boldfaced.