Shakespeare in Love (1999)

Screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Directed by John Madden

Review by Tim

My wife and I had almost missed seeing this film in the theatre, which would have been a shame. Even three weeks after its release, the little art-film house in Santa Fe to which it had come was still packing people in to the matinees, and neither Louise nor I have much patience with long lines. Two weeks in a row we had arrived at the theatre, only to turn away from the queues that stretched halfway up the block. We reluctantly gave it a third try on the following weekend, and well that we did! We would not have wanted to miss this wonderful romantic comedy on the big screen.

In the last decade of the 16th century, an aspiring playwright struggles with writer's block. The proprietor of The Rose, a London playhouse, has commissioned a comedy from him, to be called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Young Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) gropes vainly for inspiration, until he encounters Viola De Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Their chance meeting begins within Will Shakespeare's mind the metamorphosis of a slapstick farce into a romantic drama.

Meanwhile, Viola's (Gwyneth Paltrow) passion for the theatre is frustrated by the moral conventions that allow only male actors upon the stage. Disguised as a young man she auditions for the part of Romeo - a little too successfully as it turns out, for in this persona she commands Will's instant attention.

Will and Viola eventually embark on a passionate love affair, doomed by Viola's betrothal to the impoverished Earl of Wessex, who hopes to repair his fortunes with the marriage, and by Will's long-standing marriage (to Ann Hathaway, who remained in Stratford during Shakespeare's tenure in London). The play Will is writing is profoundly influenced by his affair with Viola, gradually becoming the great romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

The film adheres loosely to the known facts of Shakespeare's life, while showing an amiable disregard for the educated guesses of scholars that have come to be accepted as fact. For instance Viola, who dresses as a boy while rehearsing the play, becomes the object of one of Shakespeare's most famous sonnets: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" This would seem to be a sly bow to the contention of some literary scholars and poets (WH Auden, for example), that this sonnet was addressed to a young man. This sort of irreverence is all to the good, say I. Especially if you believe, as do I, that the nature and meaning of Shakespeare's (or any writer's) work can be understood only through the work itself, and not through the tortuous analysis of the few facts known of his life.

Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy that is completely delightful, and admirable in every phase. I can not recommend it too highly.