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Karten Web Review


 reviewed by
Harvey S. Karten



Reviewed by Harvey Karten, Ph.D. Miramax Films/Universal Pictures Director: John Madden Writer: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard Cast: Simon Callow, Martin Clunes, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Joseph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Reinton, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson

If you have a way with words and you want to create a book, a theater piece or a screenplay, you know the usual advice. Write what you know. A great deal of the literature and films we see are born from the real-life experiences of their creators. Even a sci-fi film like Michael Anderson's"Logan's Run"--which deals with how each citizen's life of unending pleasure in the twenty-third century must end at age 30 with extinction--could have been inspired by the scripter's difficulties finding a job once he had become "overqualified" because of age.

Most moviegoers are probably uninterested in how the lives of the screenwriters and directors influence their plots. That's for critics to debate. But in the visually elegant romantic comedy, "Shakespeare in Love," director John Madden uses Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay to involve us in the life of William Shakespeare, posing the question, "How much of the Bard's own life is reflected in his works?" If you're a reasonably serious student of the great Renaissance writer, you know that he depended less on his own nature than on sources well-known to all from years and centuries past. In the greatest love story of them all, Shakespeare lifted the theme from Arthur Brooke's poetic "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet," written thirty- three years before the first production of "Romeo and Juliet." Does this mean that there's nothing in the play that came out of the writer's own life? Not at all. According to the director Madden's fanciful film, Shakepeare may have been quite familiar with the Brooke text. After all, he was trying desperately to get some pages out of a new work called "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." But he was blocked. He needed inspiration, and that encouragement would come from a brief affair he would soon fall into.

Now "Romeo and Juliet," first presented to an Elizabethan audience in 1595, is a gender-bender which includes some comedy (such as the scene in the fourth act dominated by ribald musicians), a considerable allotment of tragedy, and a very great deal of romance. "Shakespeare in Love" similarly reflects these genres but is dominated by comedy. The title character, played by Joseph Fiennes, proves that writer's block is not a scourge of our own century alone. He is working on "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter," but nothing in his own life can inspire him to dash off even a single page of poetry. His purely physical needs are met by the promiscuous Rosaline (Sandra Reinton) but he needs something transcendent if he is to draft the greatest love story ever told. Neither the pressure of theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) nor the insistence of financier Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) can stir his creative juices. When he sets eyes on the lovely and cultivated Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), he is hooked and, fortunately, the feelings are mutual. Viola, however, has been commanded by Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) to marry the insistent gold-digger Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) and to follow him to his plantation in Virginia.

When Lady Viola--who aspires to be an actor at a time that women were not allowed on the stage--auditions for the role of Romeo disguised as a man, there follows a series of mistaken identities, free-for-all brawls, swordfights, and best of all some passionate embraces between Bard and bedmate that mirror the very themes of the play. The words now flow liberally from Shakespeare's quill. For dialogue, the author makes canny use of the everyday expressions he picks up while walking through London streets, such as one orator's political diatribe "A plague on both your houses" and another citizen's comment on a theater building, "A rose by any other name..." If you believe the particulars of this movie, you'll even see how Will was able to follow up his great play about love with a lighter-than-air fable,"Twelfth Night," finding a lead role for the object of his own great passion, Viola.

The idea behind the film is a clever one indeed, showing how art follows life, and is in addition a paeon to the power of the theater (and by extension the cinema) to teach us the real meaning of love. Clever that the movie may be, it does not come up to the usual standards of its co-writer, Tom Stoppard, who has imparted to us far wittier take-offs on Shakespeare such as "Dogg's hamlet," on James Joyce in "Travesties," and has inundated us with verbal wit and intellectual games in such plays as "Hapgood" (on double agents and nuclear physics) and "After Magritte" (about the elements of a Magritte painting such as umbrellas and bowlers). Much of the comedy is obvious and flat, as in the slapstick scene involving the comical torture of Philip Henslowe by Hugh Fennyman and Restoration comedy-like scenes involving the licentious Rosaline with Tiley (Simon Callow), who tries to close the theater upon learning that a woman is on the stage. Nor is Joseph Fiennes a match for the radiant and highly talented Gwyneth Paltrow. Fiennes has distinguished himself in the role of Dudley in the generally convoluted film "Elizabeth" but in a part that demands the corporeal countenance and impassioned demeanor of a great lover, he comes across as both physically and temperamentally thin. Not so Dame Judi Dench, who follows up her distinguished portrayal of Queen Victoria in John Madden's "Mrs. Brown" with a vibrant portrayal of the Virgin Queen in her current role.

"Shakespeare in Love" boasts an abundant gallery of British thesps, including Antony Sher, Rupert Everett and Simon Callow and also popular American stars such as Ben Affleck and, of course, the L.A.-born Gwyneth Paltrow. It has a 1990's sensibility, encompassing a session which Shakespeare has on the couch with verbal intimacies timed by an hourglass. The picture is stunningly photographed on location in Britain to reflect a late 16th Century motif.

Not Rated. Running Time: 120 minutes. (C) 1998
Harvey Karten

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