Eagle-eyed observer that I am, it only took two major clues for me to make the connection between Shakespeare in Love and Amadeus. First is the presence of Simon Callow, which is not, to be sure, a dead giveaway, as there are plenty of other familiar British faces in the cast. Second, and more importantly, is a scene in which a character disguises himself and then offers a challenge concerning the title character. The two films share a very particular genre, what might be called the fantasy biopic — the “wouldn’t-it-be-fun-if-it-happened-this-way” movie. Deliberately eschewing historical fealty, these movies managed to hit a cultural sweet spot, succeeding at both the box office and the Academy Awards. That being the case, it’s surprising that there haven’t been a great deal more movies like them. Regardless, the younger movie inevitably exists in the shadow of the older, and Shakespeare in Love must be said to lack the earlier film’s depth and complexity. As an amusement, however, it succeeds.
On paper, this film has a couple significant features that I’ve grown to dislike. One is an arch kind of hindsight humor, in which audience members are encouraged to nudge their neighbors in the ribs every time they know how things will eventually turn out. So we have multiple references to an unwritten play called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, which gradually takes shape into something more familiar. Some of the in-jokes are subtler and more arcane than others (I’ve still never read a John Webster play, though I’d like to someday), but all of them tend to trivialize the history involved. The second annoyance ties into the main plot of the film: a depiction of writers that deemphasizes invention and ties everything they write to specific things that happen to them in real life. This point occasionally overlaps with the first, as there are moments when Shakespeare literally overhears people on the street saying things that will eventually end up in his plays. Considering the Bard’s stature, it’s not such a big deal that his creative powers should be taken down a peg. An amusing early scene winks at the so-called “authorship question,” as Christopher Marlowe extemporaneously lends Shakespeare the premise for Romeo and Juliet. (In reality, of course, Shakespeare was adapting an old and familiar story.) The whole thrust of the film is to place us back in Shakespeare’s early days, when he was still just a struggling actor/poet with limited success as a playwright. But if Amadeus took some historical liberties with the aftershocks of the death of Mozart’s father, Shakespeare in Love goes a lot further, concocting a romance for the writer from whole cloth.
As the Swan of Avon (played by Joseph Fiennes) navigates financial straits and writer’s block, the fictional Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) navigates an arranged marriage and her own taboo love for the theater. Disguising herself as a man (here’s another nudge from those of us who’ve read more than one Shakespeare comedy), she successfully auditions for the part of Romeo but runs off like Cinderella when the author notices her. A comical amount of time passes before he realizes this “boy” and the woman who caught his eye elsewhere are one and the same, but eventually she becomes his lover and muse. When dealing with this central relationship, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s script is simultaneously at its wittiest and at its most weightless dramatically. A hilarious scene between Paltrow and Colin Firth as her soon-to-be-husband sends up the musty old idea that marriage used to be a business arrangement but today is a matter of love. Will and Viola trace Romeo and Juliet’s relationship (balconies, sword fights, nurses and all) with a similar, if lighter, sense of impending doom. But the movie draws those parallels a bit too faithfully. The relationship itself is awfully shallow, never growing into something more than two pretty young people feeling each other’s magnetism.
Much of this was clearly intentional, as the casting of Fiennes in the title role indicates. He conveys a swooning young romantic with ease; a literary genius, less so. The movie takes pains to make him a relatable, entertaining figure — again, much like Tom Hulce’s Mozart. In many ways, this attempt successfully shifts our context back to the days when Shakespeare’s art was itself considered low entertainment, salacious and crowd-pleasing. The implicit connection to cinema, the naughtiest art of them all, is unmistakable. There’s even a gag about a random person trying to get a manuscript into the hands of someone with connections. It can’t be said that the frivolity goes too far, either, as this movie never pretends to be anything but a lark (as opposed to a nightingale). But it does limit the movie’s pleasures to mere recognition, as well as the joy of seeing a whole group of talented performers in fine form. Director John Madden didn’t seem to have much of a vision for the film beyond letting the actors do their thing in accurately designed sets.
You’d think I’d come to bury this movie rather than to praise it. That would be a waste of energy. As Best Picture winners go, Shakespeare in Love might not be among the most hated, but it’s certainly looked at sideways, a competently made confection that doesn’t break any new ground aesthetically and only makes a handful of (anachronistic) political points. But despite annoying me in theory, much of the execution of this film is plainly delightful. The author flying by the seat of his pants, coaxing temperamental actors and stringing financiers along, makes for a reliably satisfying story. Ben Affleck and Geoffrey Rush are both effective as, respectively, one of those actors and one of those financiers. Tom Wilkinson, meanwhile, manages to play both, a backer for Shakespeare’s theater who takes on the role of Romeo’s apothecary, adorably furrowing his brow over the memorization of his lines. The ultimate success of the play is, rightfully, the highlight of the film. Another first-time actor (portrayed by Mark Williams) manages to overcome his stutter at the last minute, reciting the play’s prologue to a rapt audience. The rhapsodic finale is so cunningly devised and immersive that it even manages to make me consider, at least for its duration, that Romeo and Juliet might indeed be the single greatest thing ever created by humans. Given time to reflect, I always think better of it, but those are a special few minutes.