Saturday, April 8, 2017

Stubs – Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love (1998) Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench. Directed by John Madden. Screenplay by Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard. Produced by David Parfitt, Donna Gigliotti, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marc Norman. Run Time: 123 minutes. UK and US. Color. Romantic Comedy, Drama

Shakespeare’s plays have been used as source material for dozens of movies. But the Bard himself is also the subject of several films. Since there is very little actually known about the man himself, much is pure fiction. The idea of Shakespeare falling in love with an actress dates back to Alexandre Duval's "Shakespeare amoureux ou la Piece a l'Etude" (1804), in which Shakespeare falls in love with an actress who is playing Richard III. There is also a 1941 novel by Caryl Brahams and S.J. Simon, No Bed for Bacon, in which Shakespeare falls in love and finds inspiration for later plays.

Marc Norman independently developed his idea in the late 1980’s, when he pitched the idea to director Edward Zwick. Zwick, however, didn’t like Norman’s screenplay and hired Tom Stoppard, a playwright, best known for his own Shakespeare-inspired play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to improve it. A film version of the screenplay almost went into production in 1991 at Universal with Zwick as director and Julia Roberts set to play Viola. Even though sets were constructed, the part of Shakespeare had not been cast. Roberts insisted on having Daniel Day-Lewis play the part and when she couldn’t convince him to play it, she walked six weeks before production was to start.

Universal put the project into turnaround and that was the end of it for several years. Eventually though, Harvey Weinstein and Miramax would take up the production. But Zwick was replaced with John Madden, who had previously directed three films, Ethan Frome (1993), Golden Gate (1994) and Mrs. Brown (1997). The final film was the result of considerable reworking after test screenings. The ending was re-shot several times until Stoppard came up with a suitable conclusion.

When the film opens, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is a sometime actor sometime playwright.

The story opens in 1593, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is sometime actor sometime playwright working for Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), the owner of The Rose Theatre in London. Shakespeare is supposed to be working on a new play, a comedy called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. But he’s not writing, suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. Henslowe is in need of the play and a hit at his theatre because he owes money to Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson).

Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) owns The Rose Theatre in London and for
whom Shakespeare is supposedly writing a play for when the movie opens.

Fennyman decides to cut himself in on the production, figuring if it’s a hit, he’ll get back his money with the take. When Henslowe asks about the actors’ share of the profits, Fennyman, in Hollywood accounting traditions, informs him there is never a profit.

Henslowe needs a successful play since he's in debt to Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson).

Even though Shakespeare has only started writing the play, Henslowe has already begun auditioning actors. Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) and his fellow troupe of actors show up and are given parts. Alleyn, who is presented as having charisma to spare, is not given the Romeo part. Rather Shakespeare gives him the role of Mercutio, the one suggested earlier by Marlowe.

Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) is an actor being auditioned for a play Shakespeare has only begun to write.

In that day and age, all parts on stage were played by men. The role of Juliet is to be played by a young man whose voice has not yet changed, etc. But that doesn’t prevent Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who loves plays, from disguising herself and auditioning under the pseudonym Thomas Kent.

Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) pretends to be Thomas Kent so she can audition for a play.

When Thomas suddenly leaves in a hurry, William follows Thomas back to her house. He leaves a note with Viola’s nurse (Imelda Staunton), asking Thomas to begin rehearsals at the Rose. Later that night, he slips into the house with the minstrels who are playing that night at the ball. Viola’s parents are arranging for her marriage to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), an impoverished aristocrat with a plantation in the Virginia colony.

Viola's parents want her to marry Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), an impoverished aristocrat.

When Shakespeare sees Viola, he is love struck, but Wessex will have none of it and forcibly ejects Shakespeare, who tells him his name is Christopher Marlowe, from the ball. After that, Shakespeare uses Kent as a go-between, until Shakespeare discovers her true identity. After that, they begin a secret, but passionate affair. Having found his muse, Shakespeare begins writing. He gets a little help from his rival playwright, Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), who helps him transform the play into Romeo and Juliet, even suggesting part of the plot and the name of one of the characters.

Shakespeare unwittingly falls in love with Viola, whom he knows as Thomas Kent.

But there are issues that seem to doom Shakespeare’s relationship with Viola. To begin with, Shakespeare reveals that he’s married to Anne Hathaway, who is back at Stratford-Upon-Avon with their children. While that might seem like a roadblock, it doesn’t compare with the fact that Viola is pledged to marry Wessex.

The affair between Shakespeare and Viola ends his writer’s block. Inspired by his muse, the play seems to flow out of him onto paper. Gone is Ethel, the pirates’ daughter, enter fair Juliet. And no longer a comedy, the play is transformed into the tragedy we know today. The lovers even act out some of the scenes that will find their way into the finished play, especially the post-wedding night of passion.

One way to break through writer's block.

Soon afterward, Marlowe is murdered while at a pub. Shakespeare figures Wessex had him killed and blames himself for having used his name. Wessex, upon hearing of Marlowe’s murder, thinks his rival for Viola’s heart is dead. Viola has only heard that a playwright has been killed and fears the worst. When she learns Shakespeare is still very much alive, she pledges her love for him.

Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) is a rival playwright to Shakespeare.

When Viola is taken to Queen Elizabeth I’s (Judi Dench) court in Greenwich to get her approval for the wedding, Shakespeare goes along disguised as her female cousin. The Queen is presented as a bigger fan of the theatre than Viola. Her love of plays may be the reason theatres were allowed to stay open during her reign,

Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) must approve Viola's marriage to Wessex.

While at the court, Shakespeare, dressed as the nurse, wages Wessex £50 that a play can capture the true nature of love. £50 happens to be the same amount Shakespeare needs to buy a share in Lord Chamberlain's Men, a troupe in which Shakespeare occasionally acts. The Queen, hearing the wager, declares that she will be the judge of the matter.

A woman actor was not only untraditional, it was against the law. When Shakespeare is spied kissing Viola, while she’s still dressed as Thomas, by an actor left out of the production, Edmund Tilney (Simon Callow), the Master of the Revels shuts the production down. The Master of the Revels was a  position within the Royal household, that, at the time, was responsible for overseeing royal festivities and for stage censorship.

With Viola’s true identity exposed, the play is now without a lead actor or a stage to perform it on. Shakespeare takes up the role of Romeo and Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes), the owner of the Curtain theatre, gives them a venue. The play is to premiere on the day of Viola’s wedding to Wessex and she can’t stay away and she runs away to the Curtain to watch. When the boy actor set to play Juliet cannot perform, Viola steps in.

Viola steps in when the boy to play Juliet cannot perform and Shakepeare plays Romeo.

The play is a great success, with the audience captivated by the performance, even though it turns out to be a tragedy at the end. But Viola’s presence on stage leads to Tilney’s return to arrest everyone involved. But the Queen is in attendance and pretends that Viola is her alter ego Kent and prevents Tilney from executing his orders.

But the Queen is also up front about Viola’s marriage to Wessex, which she is powerless to end. She orders Kent to fetch Viola, who is set to sail to the Virginia colony with her new husband, who has followed her to the Curtain. Seeing Wessex, she orders him to pay the £50 to Shakespeare as Romeo and Juliet proves a play can depict true love.

Even though Viola and Shakespeare have to say goodbye, he vows to immortalize her. The next play he writes, at least per the movie, is Twelfth Night and he imagines Viola as a castaway on a voyage to a strange land. In that play, one of the protagonists is named Viola and she is disguised as a boy.

The film received a positive reception when it was released and made $289 million at the box office against a budget of $25 million, making it a solid hit. The film was also well represented during awards season, winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Paltrow, Best Supporting Actress for Dench and Best Picture for the movie itself. The film also won three BAFTAs including Best Film and Supporting Actress (Dench); a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival; a DGA for John Madden; Golden Globes, SAG awards, and Writers Guild Awards. One of those rare films that combines commercial and critical success.

Obviously, the film itself is a work of fiction. As any fan of Shakespeare or any reader of our review will know, the Bard did not originate the story of Romeo and Juliet himself but rather adapted one that had been around for over a hundred years. But it is clear the intention of the filmmakers was not to tell a real story but to have fun with the lack of knowledge about the Shakespearean legend. The story is presented believably, though in its own universe which is full of historical inaccuracies.

This is a very good film, from the inventiveness of the screenplay to the acting to the costume designs, which naturally won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, the way period films do.

Being a film that mostly takes place in London, there are almost as many British actors as in a Harry Potter film and all of them are very good. Joseph Fiennes, the young brother of Ralph, shows that good acting talent can be hereditary. He plays the Bard as a struggling playwright who is on the verge of failure before meeting his muse and becoming the legend we think we know today. He brings a real humanity and sense of humor, not to mention athleticism, to a role that has the potential for being quite stuffy.

Dame Judi Dench infuses Queen Elizabeth I with a personality one doubts many during her reign actually saw. Geoffrey Rush is actually an Australian, but he plays British subjects so often and so well that it’s hard to remember he’s from a different island nation. His Kings Speech co-star, Colin Firth, is also good as the self-absorbed loser, Lord Wessex. The list goes on and on, including Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton, who are all good and believable in roles large and small.

Ben Affleck seems to be an odd choice to play Ned Alleyn. In retrospect, one doubts they ran out of British actors and had to draft an American to fill the part. But at the time, Affleck was in high demand, his previous film having been the Academy Award-winning Good Will Hunting (1997), in which he not only acted but won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. In that context, he seems to be the perfect choice for Alleyn, who is presented as an actor on the top of his game, who gets a little bit of a comeuppance, when he isn’t cast as the lead in the new play. Affleck’s career has been a series of peaks and valleys since.

The star of the film, however, is another American actress, Gwyneth Paltrow. This is the pre-Goop, pre-self-absorbed Paltrow that we know today. She is good in the dual roles of Viola and Kent and I don’t have any argument with her winning the Academy Award, though I have not done an extensive look at her competition.

Gwyneth Paltrow stars in Shakespeare in Love.

After having watched several of Shakespeare’s plays made into films, I really enjoyed watching this film again. It is very delightful to reimagine a life and writing process so few know anything about. Given the unknown qualities of Shakespeare’s life, it is easy to have his character say or do anything the filmmakers wanted. There is gratefully nothing too embarrassing or outlandish Shakespeare is required to do. You can only imagine in lesser hands the crudeness that could be applied to his life.

While there is no real insight into the creative process, Shakespeare In Love is a fun period piece, an unlikely romantic comedy involving the world’s most famous writer. With the exception of some nudity, I would recommend this to anyone who is just learning about the Bard or had to endure studying one of his many plays in school and wants to see the mythical writer humanized in a fun way.

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