But soft, what words through yonder screen break! They are the words of the Bard himself in a sublime tale exquisitely penned by playwright Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman and masterfully directed by John Madden (Mrs. Brown).
How refreshing it is to hear such marvelously literate language and such sparkling wit in a contemporary film! A gift as well-scripted as this exhilarating film doesn?t come along often. One of the year?s best (it?s already received a slew of Golden Globe nominations), Shakespeare in Love is a glorious celebration of language and love that dazzles like a rare gem. When the credits rolled, I wanted to see it again immediately.
As brilliantly acted as it is written, it unfolds a fictionalized tale behind the creation of the greatest love story ever told?William Shakespeare?s Romeo and Juliet. The film opens in 1593 as the young Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) battles the scourge of any wordsmith?writer?s block. ?My quill is broken, the proud tower of my genius is collapsed,? moans young Will, under pressure from financiers and theater owners to produce.
If that isn?t bad enough, he is also humbled in the act of love. ?I cannot love nor write it,? he says. He is in desperate need of a muse to make his words again flow like a river. ?Words, words, words,? he wails, bemoaning the days when he could ?make love out of words.?
The young poet/playwright is struggling to finish Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate?s Daughter. He can?t even pin down the plot, until his rival, Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) offers a few suggestions over an ale.
Meanwhile Lady Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), an avid theatergoer intoxicated with the words of the budding Bard, dreams of acting. But alas, as a woman in Elizabethan England she is banned from performing. Instead, she is to become the bride of the insufferable Lord Essex (Colin Firth), whose proposal is a thinly veiled financial transaction that her father and the queen have endorsed. But, as a passionate romantic enthralled by courtly love, Viola longs for poetry, adventure and a ?love that overthrows life.? She finds it all in young Shakespeare.
Disguised as a boy, she auditions for the role of Romeo. Not only does she audition with one of Will?s sonnets, but she is a gifted performer. Will immediately casts the stranger as Romeo, beginning a trail of mistaken identities, mixed-up messages and misbegotten desires resembling something Shakespeare himself would have penned. When Will follows the unknown young actor home, he is told by the loyal nurse that it is Lord Kent, cousin to the beautiful Lady Viola.
Utterly besotted, Will begins conveying his intentions through Lord Kent. A boat ride on the Thames in which he confides his love for the fair maiden, enumerating her endless charms, ends in a passionate kiss. The actor?s identity is secret no longer and they begin an affair that leaves them and the audience breathless.
Once again mirroring the plot of a Shakespeare play, the star-crossed lovers can?t openly declare their affections because he is just a struggling writer and she is sworn to Lord Essex. A balcony scene parallels that in Romeo and Juliet. Their love is ?like a sickness and a cure together.? Will writes his sonnets and plays for her. His words, which again flow out of him like a river, will immortalize his real-life muse.
The cast is uniformly magnificent, every performance a small treasure. Paltrow has finally landed a plum role that lets her shine. The fiery Joseph Fiennes proves to be a leading man the caliber of his brother, Ralph. Together he and Paltrow are absolutely radiant. In one delicious sequence, rehearsals of the play are juxtaposed with Will reciting passages as he makes love to Viola. They are making love and poetry simultaneously and the effect is electrifying.
Stoppard and Norman add delightfully subtle twists that are decidedly contemporary. Egos rage out of control, artistic rivalries and feuds abound, censors threaten to close the theaters, and crass commercialism erodes artistic creativity with easily amused commoners demanding dogs on stage and young urchins crying for more bloodshed. The course of true art never did run smoothly. But ?the show must ... go on,? they conclude.
More than genius creating a legend, Will?s play is a work in progress to which the cast makes suggestions that will become etched in history. (His Mercutio suggests the title change.) Will writes the next act as the cast rehearses the last one, until Romeo and Juliet is born on opening night. A masterful film worthy of the master himself, Shakespeare in Love has it all?intelligence, poetry, playfulness, irreverence, sex, abundant humor and wit, passion, romance and, best of all, those delicious words, words, words. If audiences don?t flock to this one, a pox on all their houses.