Skip to main content

I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.

Shakespeare in Love
(1998)

(SPOILERS) You see? Sometimes Oscar can get it right. Not that the backlash post-announcement would have you crediting any such. No, Saving Private Ryan had the rug unscrupulously pulled from under it by Harvey Weinstein essentially buying Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture through a lavish promotional campaign. So unfair! It is, of course, nothing of the sort. If the rest of Private Ryan were of the same quality as its opening sequence, the Spielberg camp might have had a reasonable beef, but Shakespeare in Love was simply in another league, quality wise, first and foremost thanks to a screenplay that sang like no other in recent memory. And secondly thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow, so good and pure, before she showered us with goop.

Nurse: It is a new day.
Viola: It is a new world.

Saving Private Ryan wasn’t even the best WWII movie nominated for Best Picture that year (The Thin Red Line is another case of a film in a quite different class to Spielberg’s ongoing struggle to be accepted as a mature and intellectually challenging – rather than challenged – filmmaker). But still, any discussion of Shakespeare in Love must inevitably come back to robbing Private Ryan, because the $15m Harvey spent categorically means the Oscar was bought. And not just Best Picture Oscar. Gwynie didn’t deserve Best Actress either (it should have gone to Cate for Elizabeth), ignoring how deft her performance is, as a lady playing an actress masquerading as a boy playing Romeo, all the while exuding real passion for the theatre; you completely believe this individual would be Shakespeare’s muse (Blanchett’s performance as E1 is technically flawless, but it instils respect rather than enthusiasm, much like Shekhar Kapur’s film, thus the opposite of Judi Dench’s other E1 performance that year, the one that won).

Crucially, she also has great chemistry with Fiennes; it’s the perhaps unsurprisingly rare mark of the truly great romcom that elevates it into the enduring (see also It Happened One Night, Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally). It’s indicative of the wonders of movie alchemy that you can imagine all the various contenders for a part and how it would have been different – I seriously doubt Winona would have been much cop, so it scarcely matters that Gwynie denies stealing the script off her desk – but I don’t think there isa superior version of Shakespeare in Love out there.

Take Fiennes, who was starting out in the movies and made a splash (but tellingly wasn’t nominated for his perf); his subsequent big screen career hasn’t found him wanting for work by any means, but it has been markedly less auspicious than one might have expected. His Will Shakespeare is that one defining role, in a not entirely dissimilar fashion to Richard E Grant as Withnail (albeit with considerably less opportunity to dine out on it). His take manages to combine both the approach of the classically-trained theatre actor and something more naturalistic and looser; you can’t imagine Daniel Day Lewis or Ralph being as free with the material. Weinstein wanted Ben Affleck over Fiennes, at the last moment, it seems, but Paltrow stood firm (the irony of Affleck, the leading man reduced to a bit part, playing a leading man reduced a bit part, is delicious).

Ned: What is the play, and what is my part?

Not that Affleck deserves brickbats for his performance as Ned Alleyn. Quite the contrary, I’d argue it’s by far the best thing he’s done, showing a swagger and capacity for self-mockery that a subsequent two decades of constipated stiffness has sadly done its best to disavow. Everyone here is marvellous, though. Geoffrey Rush and his bit with a dog offers up just the right kind of scenery chewing – broad and dodgy and affable – coming off his own Oscar but recognising a great supporting part when he sees one (there was a point, somewhere around the fourth time playing Barbossa, that his performances started to become over familiar); he was rightly nominated for Philip Henslowe, but could as easily have been for Sir Francis Walsingham in Elizabeth (tho’ Henslowe is just plain more fun, and is given many of the best lines: “Strangely enough, it all turns out well”).

Queen Elizabeth: Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?

Tom Wilkinson excels as financier-turned-theatre-lover Fennyman, fiercely defending the process against any who would impede it. Colin Firth, at that point the Darcy of a generation, relishes the chance to go against type as complete rotter Lord Wessex (for some reason, this appealed to Prince Edward, who dug the title out of mothballs for his wedding). Judi Dench’s words of wisdom about being a woman in a man’s world sail dangerously close to trite applause-baiting – hence they were prominent in any given awards clip – but she has the flair to pull them off. And Rupert Everett as Kit Marlowe is flawless “star” casting – he was coming off The Madness of King George, and Hollywood raves for My Best Friend’s Wedding – as Will’s older-brother-type peer; I’d loved to have seen a whole movie of his Marlowe.

Woman in Pub: What’s the play about?
Bashford: Well, there’s this nurse…

The impression that the Shakespeare in Love screenplay is mostly Tom Stoppard isn’t really dispelled by co-writer Marc Norman’s other credits (Cutthroat Island) or the knowledge that the latter’s best idea – the premise – came from his son. Certainly, Ed Zwick (we dodged a bullet there) didn’t like the original and brought in the playwright (so he got two things right, the second being moving on). That was back when Julia Roberts (we dodged a bullet there) was involved; she wanted Day Lewis, who didn’t care for it. Kate Winslet got cold feet, and then… Gwynie.

Even when John Madden boarded, the ship failed to run smoothly – rather like fellow compatriot Mike Newell, Madden’s a journeyman director whose career has been characterised by patchy projects – with re-editing and reshoots (the ending took some graft to refashion as sufficiently upbeat and inspiring). Stoppard credits the director with upping the romantic ante, though (“I was quite turned on by the humour, the possibilities of making theatre jokes. I had a great time writing it, but I think without John it wouldn’t have been what it was. He got that the film was really driven by its love story”). Of course, Madden didn’t go home with one of the picture’s seven Oscars (that was Spielberg, natch).

The result is a double whammy, a film that’s not only funny but clever with it, stuffed with verbal and visual gags referencing Shakey’s plays as inspirations and inspired-bys; he notably gets his from Marlowe (the plot) or from Ned (the truncated title), while young John Webster (Joe Roberts), later of gore-drenched plays, does his best to ensure things don’t turn out well for anyone. It was suggested at the time that Stoppard had sacked No Bed for Bacon for inspiration, but that seems a rather disingenuous interpretation (he’d read it, but the idea was still Norman’s, and there isn’t a whiff of Bacon in the movie; come to that, there’s no suggestion Shakespeare was actually St Germain either). True, the threads are resolved by a Regina ex Machina (“Tell Master Shakespeare something more cheerful next time, for Twelfth Night”) and the historicity is optimistic (Viola is walking the boards about seventy years before women were allowed, so she wasn’t starting any trends), but the picture manages that supremely difficult feat of taking leave of a doomed romance in a manner that’s both wistful and hopeful (and if that’s partly down to Harvey’s influence, well, stopped clocks and all that).

Oh, and the score is gorgeous, providing inherent uplift while driving the narrative forward; as much as anything can be said to sprinkle magic fairy dust on Shakespeare in Love, it’s composer Stephen Warbeck’s contribution of a supremely romantic accompaniment; the imagined Viola, walking a stretch of beach at the start of Twelfth Night, turns a sad ending into a triumph. It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to favour features about the business when it comes to awards time (in the years since, The Artist, Argo and Birdman have all gone there) but it’s very rare to have one like this, written to within an inch of its life. There isn’t an original screenplay Oscar winner since that comes close (and you’re only really looking at Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino as contenders in the two decades prior). It’s about time to cease daubing Saving Private Ryan’s shitty stick over the film. Shakespeare in Love is, simply, a classic of the genre. The right film won.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***