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Movie Review: Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love
Directed by John Madden
Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Miramax, 1998

1998 may have been the beginning of true Oscar skepticism when Shakespeare in Love took Best Picture over Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  In what has now become commonplace, the Director and Picture Oscars didn’t match, as Spielberg took home the former and the Weinsteins campaigned their way into the latter.

It’s not like Shakespeare in Love wasn’t deserving, it was just really unlikely, and this brought a bunch of criticism towards the awards-hungry Weinsteins and their over-the-top campaigns.  But it’s easy to see why the awards split: Spielberg’s film was a tour-de-force of direction, encompassing never-experienced-before battle scenes, while Madden’s was blessed with a strong script (which won the Original Screenplay honor) and notable performances.  What probably lost it for Ryan was a perceived letdown of a second act, after an incredible opening.

In Shakespeare in Love, the reknowned playwright (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling to write a play, any play, for his backer, Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), who has money troubles.  Inspiration comes when he meets Viola De Lesseps (Best Actress Gwyneth Paltrow), who is betrothed to the boorish Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a match approved by Queen Elizabeth I (Best Supporting Actress Judi Dench).  Viola is a huge fan of Shakespeare, and with the rules in place at the time that women could not appear on stage, she dresses as a man named Thomas Kent to try out for his new play.  It works.

The play is Romeo & Juliet, titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter until actor Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) suggests a title change.  Eventually, after some amusing mistaken identity where Shakespeare confides in Kent his love for Viola, Shakespeare finds out the truth, and the romance begins.  Shakespeare continues to improve his play while the two lovers keep their affair secret from Lord Wessex, and Viola tries not to blow her cover.

The film suggests in a funny manner that Shakespeare was inspired by everything around him, and those things entered into his plays, so there are a great many inside jokes for a Shakespeare enthusiast to enjoy.  The star here is the script by Stoppard and Norman.  Paltrow, who had only really entered into the filmgoing public’s consciousness three years previously in 1995’s Seven, is excellent, as is the un-nominated Joseph Fiennes (he and brother Ralph were in an incredible amount of Best Picture nominees in the nineties).  Dench won her Oscar for six minutes of screen time (a record low), which no matter how much you like her is pretty unfair.

1998’s palette is fairly easy to remember: There’s this and the other Elizabethan-era film, Elizabeth.  Then there are three World War II-era films, two are battle-oriented with Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, and the comedy-drama, Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.  The film got nominated for 13 total and won 7.

My favorite film of 1998 was Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which snagged 3 nominations including a Director nom (Weir’s knocked out Elizabeth’s Shekhar Kapur).  Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight was another great film with minimal nominations.

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