Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare In Love (1998)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Martin Clunes, Geoffrey Rush, Gwynneth Paltrow, Colin Firth
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Historical Biographies

I’m the kind of person who is rarely impressed on Oscar night. I just never seem to agree with the winners chosen by the Academy. So, when I come across an Oscar winning film that I enjoy, it is a true rarity. But, I must admit, I did enjoy "Shakespeare In Love", which just arrived on DVD. While I don’t agree that it was the best film of 1998 (that distinction would have to go to "Rushmore", "The Truman Show", or "A Bug’s Life" in my opinion). However, it is a very well-made film with a great cast, and it definitely deserves much of the praise it has received.

"Shakespeare In Love" opens in London, in the year 1593. We find a young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) down on his luck. He is broke and he is having trouble writing. He claims that he needs a muse to inspire his work while he is working for two different theater companies simultaneously.

One is "The Curtain", owned by Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes) and the other is "The Rose", owned by Phillip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush). Burbage has money and commands great writers and actors. Henslowe owes money and cannot hire actors or writers. When Burbage betrays Shakespeare’s trust, Shakespeare becomes determined to write a great play for Henslowe entitled "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter."

One day Shakespeare meets Viola De Lesseps (Gwynneth Paltrow), a lady in waiting who is a fan of Shakespeare’s work. She is beautiful and Shakespeare is immediately drawn to her. Unfortunately, she is a noble, and worse, her hand in marriage has been promised to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). Determined to fulfill her love for both the arts and Shakespeare, Viola disguises herself as a man (as women were not allowed on the stage at this time) and joins Henslowe’s theater group. Thus inspired by Viola, Shakespeare’s writer’s block disappears and he begins work on his greatest play yet. The Admiral’s Men, a great acting troupe led by Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) then join the cast to help produce the play. All seems perfect, but fate threatens to doom the play and the love between Shakespeare and Viola, as Lord Wessex, Shakespeare’s great rival, and Queen Elizabeth all become involved with the story.

"Shakespeare In Love" succeeds as it is a film about actors that actually has good actors in it. While Joseph Fiennes may resemble his more famous brother Ralph, he is a better actor. And he also scores points because his name is pronounced the way it is spelled! As William Shakespeare, he presents us with a man who is in love with his work, but also with life itself. He longs to be a famous playwright and see his work performed, but he also yearns for true love. Paltrow is quite good as Viola. She is believable as the woman who feels trapped by the oppressive society around her. However, disbelief must be cast into the wind when she takes to the stage as a "man." With her feminine features and high voice, EVERYONE would have known she was a woman. But, that’s nitpicking, isn’t it?

While the two principal actors are good, the supporting players really make the film. Geoffrey Rush is very funny as Henslowe, the man who leaves everything to destiny. Affleck has a believable British accent, and gives a credible performance as Ned, the vain, yet noble actor. Of course, there is one scene where Affleck lets a little "attitude" show, but that is to be expected. Tom Wilkinson (who I thought was Ian Holm at first) is delightful as Fennyman, the backer who keeps threatening to hurt Henslowe. And Judi Dench is superb as Queen Elizabeth. There is also a great cameo by Rupert Everett as playwright Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great rival.

Good actors alone can’t save a film if it doesn’t have a good script. Fortunately "Shakespeare In Love" has both, a great cast and a rock solid script. The story is a grand mixture of actual historical facts and wholly fictional material created by screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. The story works because of its inherent simplicity. We all know who William Shakespeare is and we all know that he wrote "Romeo And Juliet". The film asks the simple question, "How did that come about?" While there are many characters and subplots, the story never seems contrived and it is easy to follow. The script’s greatest triumph has to do with language. While the characters all speak Elizabethan English, the language never gets too flowery (as it can in Shakespeare’s works). You hardly notice the use of "thou" and "anon", but are instead drawn into what the characters are saying.

The Miramax Home Video DVD of "Shakespeare In Love" offers a nice transfer of the film. The film is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1 and is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs, a first for any Buena Vista release. The framing of the picture appears accurate, as there is no bending of the frame or warping. The picture is very clear, showing no artifacting or damage to the source print. Director John Madden (who I understand, contrary to popular belief, is not an ex-football coach), has given the picture a look that is historically accurate. The locations are mostly dark and dirty. The costumes that the actors wear, may have once been grand, but have dulled with age. So, the film’s color palette is subdued, not garish. The reds, blues and greens are very true, but not overly bright.

The audio on the DVD is presented in full <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1. The soundtrack is very active throughout the film, especially so during the performance of "Romeo And Juliet". However, at times, the mix focuses too much on the center channel, causing the other 4 channels to be drowned out.

Although Buena Vista made a huge leap by introducing 16×9 enhancement, they still don’t offer many extras. The DVD features the theatrical trailer, <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1 and in Dolby 2-channel. There are also historical facts about Shakespeare and the other characters in the film who were based on real people. I have complained before about DVDs not offering us a historical background for reality-based films, and it was nice to be able to get a more in-depth knowledge about the parts of "Shakespeare In Love" that were based on reality.

"Shakespeare In Love" is a good film that most everyone can enjoy. It has a great story and fine performances by its actors. While the DVD presentation may be a little lack luster for the Oscar winner for Best Picture, the film looks and sounds great. I may not be in love with "Shakespeare In Love", but I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.