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Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter
by Asa Butcher
2008-05-05 07:40:16
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Shakespeare in Love
Directed by John Madden
1998, Universal Pictures

Some would say that Shakespeare in Love was a Best Picture tragedy, while others would argue it was a comedy worthy of the seven statuettes. You are now wondering into which category my allegiance falls, but there are a few observations I wish to share before revealing my positive opinion… oops!

A number of movie magazines and film forums have discussed, argued and been rather rude about their thoughts on the Top Five Worst Best Picture Winners, with many including John Madden's Shakespeare in Love - although never below the travesty known as Chicago - among their final choice. In my last Best Picture review I mentioned that one of the over-riding reasons people hate a Best Picture winner was because of the other nominees that were shunned in its favour.

At the 71st Academy Awards Shakespeare in Love was pitted against Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and La Vita è bella in the Best Picture category and I can easily understand why many film lovers would be angry, especially since Roberto Benigni should have collected another Oscar that night… anyway, it didn't, so I am left to review a rather good film that I hadn't watched in the twelve years since its initial release.

Directed by John Madden (born just a few miles from my own hometown), a few years before he went on to make Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard, who was also responsible for the genius play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love takes the Bard of Avon and turns him on his head.

There is none of the usual stuffiness and boredom commonly associated with other films based on the Bard's plays, plus many of the myths surrounding Will's life are playfully toyed with and facets of 20th century life are also injected into the film. In one of the opening scenes, Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has a cup on his desk that reads, "Stratford Upon Avon" and in another scene Shakespeare jumps into a river taxi and has the following conversation with the boatman played by "The Fast Show's" Simon Day:

William Shakespeare: Follow that boat!
First Boatman: Right you are, guv'nor!... I know your face. Are you an actor?
William Shakespeare: [Oh God, here we go again] Yes.
First Boatman: Yes, I've seen you in something. That one about a king.
William Shakespeare: Really?
First Boatman: I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.

Shakespeare in Love is a comedy and it will make you laugh so long as you approach it as a parody of Shakespeare, dismiss any notions of historical accuracy and try and count the number of British stars. Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson, Martin Clunes, Simon Callow, Judi Dench (won Best Supporting Actress for her eight-minutes of screen-time), Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, Mark Williams and a cameo by Rupert Everett as Christopher Marlowe are all impressive and leave a slightly patriotic tingle! Of course, Geoffrey Rush, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck all deserve a tip of the hat for their scenes.

Gwyneth Paltrow managed to edge out Cate Blanchett's performance in Elizabeth to claim the Best Actress in a Leading Role and that would be the only area I would voice a disagreement - Blanchett's Queen Elizabeth was awesome, while Paltrow's Viola de Lesseps was mildly annoying at times. Granted, the scenes in which she is a woman pretending to be a woman, since women were forbidden from the 16th century stage, are fun to watch, while Fiennes' Shakespeare does have some priceless moments with de Lesseps before he discovers the truth.

As for the plot, you don't need to know much other than Shakespeare has writer's block and is searching for a muse. His work is in demand and he is supposed to be writing a play entitled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, although - you guessed it - this slowly morphs into the classic tragedy of two star-crossed lovers that we were all forced to read at school.

In all probability the last Shakespearian cinematic piece that I actually enjoyed was Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead that dealt with two minor characters in Hamlet, so it was great to see he is still on top form. Forget all of your prejudices about Shakespeare and watch this great British comedy… then go and watch Roberto Benigni in La Vita è bella.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-05-05 15:03:32
Insightful article! In teaching 19th century Romanticism I've often found myself wondering if there would have been a Romantic era without Shakespeare being translated and becoming widely known on the European continent, if there would have been a Shakespeare without the Renaissance, and if there would have been a Renaissance without the preservation of the Graeco-Roman manuscripts. The mysteries of cultural influences!

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