Shakespeare in Love

500fullThe central premise of Shakespeare in Love — its title is self-explanatory — is so juicy that it’s amazing no movie has done it before. Perhaps everyone was afraid to do it — intimidated by the Shakespearean scholars who seem to think they own him. As directed by John Madden (Mrs. Brown), from a script by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), the movie wastes no time setting itself up as a rowdy, colloquial piece of popular entertainment — the farthest thing from a fussy biopic of the Bard. Yet it doesn’t trivialize its subject; if anything, it’s truer to Shakespeare than a more refined movie would be. It’s great popular entertainment about the genesis of great popular entertainment.

Rather shrewdly, the movie gives us a young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) who, with his stylish short hair, goatee, and single earring, could almost be a modern-day poet slaving over a notebook in Starbucks. Shakespeare in Love is full of enjoyable parallels between Shakespeare’s time and ours, but the filmmakers don’t stress them too much; they’re there for us to notice if we want to. There’s some comfort in the idea that even Shakespeare worried about appealing to a mass audience and staying ahead of creditors: Some things never change.

It does no good to approach the movie too literally. Shakespeare in Love is historical fiction, conjecturing what — and who — might have influenced some of the early great plays. Sometimes this cause-and-effect logic falls flat, as in Ken Russell’s biopics of composers — this tragedy inspired that symphony — but here the touch is lighter; Shakespeare has been given his own story to star in, just as the playwright himself did with the British monarchs, and nobody complains that those plays were inaccurate. For example, it does just as little good to point out that Shakespeare actually cribbed the plot of Romeo and Juliet from a poem, not from his own doomed love affair with the beautiful Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), who loves him but is engaged, against her will, to another man.

The movie’s plot motor is Shakespeare’s attempts to write Romeo and Juliet — he seems to hand it in a piece at a time — and get it produced so that his theater-owner friend (Geoffrey Rush) can pay off his debts. I think that’s why we go along with the movie’s conceit: Shakespeare’s motivation is primarily monetary. He doesn’t write the play to win Viola’s heart: she’s already smitten with him because of his earlier work. Nor do the play’s events explicitly mirror the love affair, or vice versa; they seem organically intertwined, and Shakespeare finds a way to pour both his passion and his anguish into the play without turning it into a melodrama about a playwright who loses his lover to a clueless twit.

Shakespeare in Love is a very smart and relaxed movie; the more it trusts us to make connections on our own, the more engaging it is. Nobody involved seems to be worried about losing us or explaining things; we pick up what we need to know as the film moves us briskly along. Everyone in the cast, from Geoffrey Rush as the panicky theater owner to Tom Wilkinson as the creditor who becomes an unlikely ally, works with ease and confidence. And the romantic leads are perfectly cast. Joseph Fiennes is handsome enough to resemble his brother Ralph, but he’s also scruffier and friendlier — he’s Will Shakespeare as a hands-on writer, who hawks and spits as part of his ritual before sitting down to whip the play into shape.

And this, I think, will be remembered as the movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow finally got the respect — and the role — she deserved. Smart and passionate, her Viola isn’t merely Shakespeare’s muse — she’s his ideal audience and his great subject, the promise of perfection, the gentle illusion that all artists need. But she’s also a full-blooded woman with a mind and will of her own, and when she and Shakespeare are together, they reach out to each other intellectually as well as physically. Ah, yes, the pre-feminist woman resisting the sexism of her times: how often have movies botched that theme? Yet it works here, and a lot of other things that haven’t worked in other movies work like a charm here. How? To quote Rush’s character: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

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