Retro Review: Shakespeare in Love
A cavalcade of stars. A world-renown script writer. Source material that’s resonated with its readers and audience for over 400 years. And yet, all these Oscars for 1998′s Shakespeare in Love still don’t make a lick of sense.
As the trailer above explains in such painstakingly banal detail, Shakespeare in Love mashes up biographical fact and fiction about the real William Shakespeare and the plot of Romeo and Juliet, his most famous tragedy. Shakespeare struggles with writing block, but when a beautiful, unattainable woman enters his life, the whole story unfolds in his real life, bleeding onto the stage, resulting in the piece we all know and love today.
Written by Mark Norman and theatre legend Tom Stoppard, the script is a strange mixture of wound-up, put-on period-style talk and modern sarcasm, resulting in both styles feeling fake and dishonest. Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson and Gwyneth Paltrow, all good-to-great actors, struggle to stay authentic, especially when John Madden’s over-the-top direction is added to this peculiar cinematic casserole. Some lines hit their mark, but other whole scenes crumble under the weight of the strange text which follows neither Shakespeare’s original rhythm nor modern way of speaking. And it has not gotten better with age.
Dame Judi Dench is one of only two actors seemingly unperturbed by the sputtering dialogue, delivering her Queen Elizabeth with just the kind of high-class gusto only she can deliver. The other one, shockingly, is Ben Affleck, who seems to know he can’t possibly pull off a convincing Shakespearean performance, and opts for scoffing sarcasm instead, which works perfectly for his arrogant Ned.
The music is horribly out of tune with the film throughout, undermining the two fight scenes with a strangely light-hearted faux-classic, as if to remind the viewer that he shouldn’t forget he’s watching a comedy.
And speaking of comedy. While there are lines which manage to generate chuckles, like Geoffrey Rush’s mantra of how theatre problems work themselves out is “a mystery”, the rest is either so mishandled or dated that the third-act twist, which turns the comedy on its head, into a tragedy (predictably, given the Romeo & Juliet source), is not nearly as impactful as it could be.
It’s not entirely horrid, though. The film’s strongest points are where it sticks with Shakespeare, in the “real” Romeo & Juliet parts, both in the theatre scenes and in William and Viola’s relationship, mustering up some emotional weight and gut-wrenching situations. All promptly undermined by the ridiculous score, of course, turning sincerity into emotional manipulation.
Final Verdict: Shakespeare in Love is without a doubt among the least-deserving Best Picture Oscar winners of all time. It’s an example of audiences getting caught up in sensation without substance. Some great performances, like Judi Dench, get bogged down in a plodding, forced, badly directed and horribly scored mash-up of a Shakespeare faux-biopic and Romeo & Juliet.