Writer’s block. There are very few things that can really inspire the words to flow again, I suspect even fewer were easily accessible in the Elizabethan era, where just preparing a quill can be time consuming. What we have here in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a fictional portrait of a young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), fresh out of ideas, but being pressured for a new play. “I cannot love or write,” he says, suggesting that one follows the other. However, he does have a small start to his upcoming play, so far entitled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Writing is almost always a work in progress.
Then there’s Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), an idealistic young woman whose spirit seems overfilled after hearing Will’s work, “I will have poetry in my life, and adventure and love.” She aspires to act in one of his plays, but women are forbidden from appearing on stage, it’s considered lewd. Having women played by pre-pubescent boys can have some issues and seem to make any romance feel a bit off. So she disguises herself as a young man and lands the lead role as Romeo, before the play is even written. But before Will realizes his lead is a woman, he meets Viola, is instantly in love, and inspired to write.
Viola continues to work with Will and his players under the name Tom Kent, and Will attempts to use Tom as a messenger to help profess his love for Viola. The rowboat scene where Will goes on about his love for Viola to Tom is wonderfully comic, romantic and weird all at once. Seeing Viola behind that little mustache trying to milk every word from Will while trying not to swoon is an amazing moment that only gets better as she loses herself. After Will pieces together what just happened, he and Viola pursue a steamy romance while they keep her real identity secret at the playhouse. All this secrecy and obstacles between their love inspires Will further to create Romeo and Juliet.
As I watch this film more and more (it’s quickly becoming a climbing favorite), I find new appreciation for Paltrow’s Oscar winning role. There is such a dynamic duality that she must encompass, that I don’t think everyone understands on the first viewing. She is Will’s inspiration to write, his lover, and yet she must keep up the act of being a man, go on stage every day and perform the words she helped bring about. In an age where it’s normal for men to dress as women on stage, she turns that upside-down. Not only is there risk of being exposed as a woman on stage, but the relationship with Will is disregarding the fact that she has recently become engaged, which in turn, inspires the tragedy of the play. Paltrow combines all these criss-crossing roles and ideas so well, while boiling it all down to just the idealistic girl who wants a life full of love, poetry and adventure.
Shakespeare in Love is a rare, wonderfully entertaining film that can bring literature alive in its natural setting, even showing us a story of its origin. So many people are first introduced to Shakespeare’s work in a boring classroom atmosphere, where we read his most heated lines in a completely bland teenage monotone. Textbooks show that he was a bald man looking out to us from some painting, that frilly thing around his neck. Here, Shakespeare is vibrant, handsome and reciting his own poetic lines in perfect tone, in rhythm of his walking as Geoffrey Rush tries to keep up. Romeo and Juliet has never felt so alive or looked so naturally good.
“Like a sickness and its cure together.”
As one who favored SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that year, and also Cate Blanchett’s performance in ELIZABETH…I nevertheless appreciated your review and actually agree with you about Paltrow’s performance. I recall being overwhelmed by the “play within the play” and agree that ROMEO & JULIET was never so well done as in this film…Though, still not my pick for Best Film, kudos, indeed, to Paltrow for an excellent performance.
Lovely review. This is a fine film, a favourite of mine and easily my favourite of 1998. I prefer Cate’s Elizabeth but I’m hardly embittered about Paltrow here she’s excellent. This film often feels a bit like a throwback to the screwball comedies of the thirties. Imagine Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant doing this.