I suppose that, if you’ve never read Romeo and Juliet or any Shakespeare play ever, this review contains some spoilers.
It was one of the strangest Academy Awards in the last twenty years: in 1999, the Italian actor Roberto Bengini won two Oscars for acting in and directing Life is Beautiful, a comedy about the Holocaust. A large portion of the audience refused to applaud for an honorary Oscar awarded to Elia Kazan.* Dame Judi Densch won an Oscar for a film in which she had less than 15 minutes of screen time. An American actress playing an English character managed to win the Best Actress Oscar when her competition was Cate Blanchett playing Queen Elizabeth I. And a odd little romantic comedy managed to wrest Best Picture from Saving Private Ryan despite the fact that Steven Spielberg had already won Best Director. Those last three oddities all happened to the same movie, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love.
The plot of the film isn’t actually that odd: it’s hardly a new idea that William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) would come up with Romeo and Juliet as a result of his own star-crossed romance, in this case with a woman named Violet (Gwyneth Paltrow) who tries to act in his plays by posing as a boy. In fact co-writer Tom Stoppard had to fend off a few accusations of plagiarism by writers who had also conceived of a Shakespeare in love. A number of plot points will be transparent early on; when two characters make a bet halfway through, it’s easy to guess how it will be resolved.
Predictability is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact it’s all a part of the plan here. Stoppard, the award-winning playwright behind the Bard deconstruction Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, drops a number of references not just to Romeo and Juliet but several other Shakespeare plays, and Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe (Faustus) as well. It’s Bard fan-service in some ways; I remember reading Romeo & Juliet in high school when several students suggested that Mercutio was much more awesome than Romeo, so it’s all the more amusing to imagine that aspect as a product of needing to hire a pompous star (Ben Affleck, in one of his best roles) by telling him that the play is about his character and titled Mercutio.
This story also contains a great many references to theater itself, although those jokes are much less sharp. The most entertaining among them is the fact that as the play gets closer to fruition, every actor believes their role to be the most important one, most humorously shown by Tom Wilkinson as Apothecary. Much less funny is the running joke that theater-goers just want to see a love story with a dog in it; the recent Best Picture win for The Artist seems to suggest that’s what Oscar voters want also. My bigger issue is with Densch’s Oscar win: she’s a British national treasure, to be sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that she basically won an Oscar for saying in more flowery style, “I know you love this other guy, but you said ‘I do’ in front of a priest, so tough shit.”
On the topic of Oscar winners: it seems that every woman I know dislikes Gwyneth Paltrow, and I’m not sure why. The major problem with her character is that it’s mostly two-note: Violet is either distressed at her lot in life, or all over Will like a bad rash. However, that seems to me to be a problem which is mostly on the page, and Paltrow puts great effort into fleshing Violet out, especially as she enthuses about the power of the theater to affect people. You can’t blame this movie for the rambling Oscar acceptance speech that Paltrow would later give, or the fact that Paltrow hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar again while Blanchett has.
I suppose my big issue is that Shakespeare in Love is so agreeable and light-hearted that it borders upon disposable. The love story with Violet and Will is powerful, but the conflicts that oppose them do not match the intensity. As might be expected, there’s a brief confusion where one lover believes the other to be dead, but it doesn’t persist for even five minutes of screen time. The issue of Shakespeare’s marriage is dismissed with hand-wavey impatience; Stoppard cannot even be bothered to let us see the woman whom Will would leave for Violet.
The film is shot through with love – both romantic love, and a love of theater and storytelling – but it’s not likely to tell you anything about love that you didn’t already agree with. Contrast with another Best Picture winner from Miramax Films, The English Patient: the film asks us to sympathize with a man who may well have committed treason and sided with the Nazis for the sake of his true love. I didn’t need Shakespeare in Love to go that far, of course, but it would have been nice for Will and Violet to feel even half as conflicted as Romeo and Juliet did. This is a deeply enjoyable romantic comedy, but in terms of a challenging or long-lasting message, it seemed to be much ado about nothing.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Kazan had named names for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, causing enmity within Hollywood which lasted until his death in 2003.