Film Review: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

“Theatre is the handmaiden of the devil”

With a theatrical version of Shakespeare in Love about to open in the West End, I thought I’d revisit the 1998 film as I’m not entirely sure that I’ve seen it since it was first released. It is still surprising to see that it managed to win seven Academy Awards and whilst I like both Gwyneth Paltrow and Dame Judi Dench, looking at their competition it is a little galling to think that they were recognised for these roles. And in the light of the huge authorship furore that erupted around Anonymous, it is interesting to see how little comparable fuss the level of invention here caused.

To be fair, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s film makes no pretence to be literarily or historically accurate (given the paucity of source material, it’s hardly surprising) but because the approach here is a hugely affectionate one towards the Bard, rather than challenging popular notions about him, it is clear something of a free pass has been given here. So we see Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare working on a comedy called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter and being inspired by the everyday chatter and the tumult of his personal life to amend the play and write his famous words. 

That this ignores the actual source of Romeo and Juliet in literary history is by the by in the end, heck, this is a film with Ben Affleck trying an English accent so it is better to just suspend all levels of disbelief here. That way you can appreciate the deep level of punning going on and the repeated references to the Shakespearean canon (both written and filmed) that are scattered throughout. There’s much more fun in discovering that the gore-obsessed young lad who hangs around the theatre is called John Webster than in any of the romantic schlomping about between the film’s leads.

The main story of Will falling for Viola de Lesseps, a woman determined to defy the times and act on the stage doing her favourite playwright (literally), is strangely uninvolving. She’s betrothed to another, wealthier, man; he’s got a wife and kids back in Stratford, one might think there’d never been a tale of more woe but it is a struggle to really care about them as a couple, for me there’s a distinct lack of charm. La Dench as Queen Bess is certainly fun though her limited screen time scarcely deserves the statuette, an uncredited Rupert Everett is also good value as friend and rival Kit Marlowe. 

Still, it hardly feels like a classic film and thus an interesting choice for adaptation, though the creative names around the play do fill me with more excitement than would otherwise have been the case.

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