If money can’t always buy love, it can turn heads. The reported outlay of $14 million for the relayed publicity campaign seems to have done the, er, trick, prompting Academy voters to award the 1998 Best Picture Oscar to Shakespeare in Love ahead of Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.
Writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (whose Shakespeare-inspired Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a gem) have crafted a love story based on the Bard’s “struggle” to complete Romeo and Juliet even as his own apparent life imitates art. With the invented working titles of Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter or Romeo and Rosalind, viewers are immediately aware that John Madden’s film will be a trumped-up fantasy rather than an insightful look at the world’s best-loved playwright.
Nonetheless, with a cast such as this and a superb production team (notably the stellar cinematography of Richard Greatrex and era-rich costuming from Sandy Powell), they could probably have read the phone book and still emerged victorious at the 70th Academy Awards.
Whether playing a mustachioed leading lady (males took on all of the parts in the good days of theatre) or unabashedly bare between the sheets with a married man who is set to burst onto the stage and remain there for centuries to come, Gwyneth Paltrow positively radiates the screen. As Shakespeare, Joseph Fiennes has the feather-pen-with-ink technique down pat, but fails to find the wry intellectual demeanour that will convince anyone that he is Will. Alas and alack, his well-known propensity for same-sex encounters is barely given a nod, much less a wink.
The supporting players are uniformly first rate, led by She Who Must Be Obeyed (and admired with every look, word and gesture) Judi Dench as Elizabeth I. Stephen O’Donnell makes for a wonderfully rapscallion Lambert, while Tom Wilkinson is perfectly nuanced as Hugh Fennyman. Playing the hapless Lord Wessex, Colin Firth is entirely believable. Imelda Staunton’s nurse is as loyal as they come. In a brief but important role as chief competitor (and perhaps the real creator of Shakespeare’s work—it’s the stuff and gossip of soap opera), Rupert Everett is charm itself in the form of Christopher Marlowe.
Viewed in the 21st century, the film most certainly entertains, but ought to be seen as a very light appetizer before enjoying the real thing in a live theatre near you. JWR