Shakespeare in Love: Not Good Enough

On June 6, 1944, the Allies stormed the beaches at Normandy, France in an attempt to break Hitler’s stone cold grip on Europe. On that day, after years of planning, the Allies landed on five beaches, Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha, and Utah and started the beginning of the end of World War II. Although it would be more than a year of total and brutal warfare until the war was over, the Allies essentially signed the death notice of the Third Reich that day. Hitler began a retreat that went all the way to Berlin.


Such a famous and consequential day in history is rife with tales, both true and tall, that many books can, and have, been written about the subject. More than 156,000 troops stormed the beaches that day and thousands died in combat.


One of the most celebrated of these stories is the Steven Spielberg classic Saving Private Ryan from 1998. Starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, the movie centers around a unit commander, and the soldiers under his charge, that is tasked with, well, saving Private James Ryan. Ryan is one of four brothers. His other three brothers were all killed in combat either on D-Day or just a few days before. To spare Ryan’s mother from the grief of losing all of her children, word comes down to Captain John Miller that he’s to take his men to find and extract Ryan somewhere in the French countryside.


What resulted is one of the most incredible war movies ever made. Everything about Saving Private Ryan, from the acting to the action, to the sound design and special effects (and even the startling realism of the D-Day scene) kept me on the edge of my seat and I wept by the time it was over.


Only there’s a problem. Saving Private Ryan didn’t win Best Picture at the 71st Academy Awards. And I can’t believe it either.


That honor instead went to the Harvey Weinstein-produced Shakespeare in Love, a sappy romantic comedy starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Just when I thought I couldn’t hate Weinstein even more, I find this film was marketed by Weinstein to appeal to the Academy’s voters. I’ll admit, he changed the game with an aggressive marketing scheme. How this romantic comedy beat out one of the most devastatingly beautiful, savagely realistic, and emotionally demanding films of the last half-century is a mistake that I may never forgive the Academy for.

Now, for the rest of the story.




Shakespeare in Love starts with a young William Shakespeare in 1593 London. As he struggles to put pen to paper and come up with a hit play that will save his boss from a sticky end, we see young William as a womanizing playwright who is too full of himself.


When the young Viola De Lesseps (Paltrow) sees a Shakespeare play performed, she’s immediately smitten with the poetry and decides to try out for Shakespeare’s next show, which is currently in the audition stage. As it was illegal for women to perform on stage at the time, she disguises herself.

From the start, Viola is the best actor that comes across the stage and takes William’s heart by her great acting. Viola, disguised as a man, is cast in the lead role.


Over time, William discovers Viola’s disguise and is immediately taken with her beauty, and uses her as a muse. Their romance begins to lay the foundation for Shakespeare’s great play, Romeo and Juliet. The relationship is complicated when Viola is due to be married off to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), after which he’ll go to his Virginia plantation (even though Virginia didn’t exist at the time).


Throughout the movie, which is just a little more than two hours, the plot is often complicated and fast-moving. Soon, the plot starts to resemble the actual Romeo and Juliet play. So, it’s like a play within a play. This is a great device that isn’t seen as often as I’d like. 1.




Shakespeare in Love was written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. The pair got Best Original Screenplay at the 71st Academy Awards.


From a dialogue standpoint, the exchanges are wordy and archaic. Naturally, they have to match the times and the two do it perfectly.


Other than that, though, the writing goes downhill quickly. The writing is obviously convenient for the characters and they don’t really have to work at anything throughout.

Additionally, the script is overly sappy and cheesy in my mind. The primary example of this is while William and Viola are making love or seeing each other, they start to cheesily recite Shakespeare’s own lines. I hated this. 0.




The movie’s composer, Stephen Warbeck, got Best Original Musical or Comedy Score at the ceremony. The score itself is large and grandiose, sweeping the story along. However, it’s also quite melodramatic at times with the serious “crisis music” being far too played up for the actual crisis on the screen. 0.


Set Design


For as much as I may lament this movie, I really did enjoy the set pieces. From the start, the film is excessively detailed right down to the candle holders. I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck. The set really helps to give us the feel of the world in a really deep way.


This is complemented by the costumes worn, as well. The first word that came to mind while watching the movie was “puffy.” Even though London is about as far from the Middle East as you can get, I was reminded of the robes from Lawrence of Arabia. These aren’t your mother’s shoulder pads, that’s for sure. These things are massive and fluffy, sending each of the outfits over the top. 1.




Richard Greatrex was the director of photography for Shakespeare in Love. He walked away with a just a nomination at the 71st Academy Awards in 1999.


Cinematography, along with the set, is one of the high points of the movie. Utilizing a wide range of techniques and angles, Greatrex is able to keep a dull movie interesting. Throughout the film, he uses crooked angles, montages, and the entire gamut of shots, from wide to close-ups and everything in between.


I was a true fan of the use of the cranes within a theatre. Theatres of the time were round and tall, rather than the long and relatively flat ones we see today. When shooting a stage in a modern theatre, it makes sense that, when you show the audience’s perspective, then I would start from the back and slowly push toward the action. Greatrex instead starts from the top and uses a crane to descend down to the stage, thus showing how the audience’s attention is projected downward. 1.




Starring many great actors, Shakespeare in Love boasts a robust cast with the likes of Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, and Colin Firth. But the two actors that really steal the show are Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps.


Fiennes plays a young Shakespeare, lost in youth angst and unable to come up with a single word to put on the page. He’s trying to find his muse.


Shakespeare, though, is in desperate need of a muse to really make his brilliant mind tick into overdrive. While is search is certainly not in vain, he doesn’t go about it the right way at first, choosing to womanize and drink.


When Viola does come into his life, though, he suddenly has inspiration and jumps into action. Viola helps to flip a switch within his genius mind, springing him from long nights at the bar or in his bed, Shakespeare is instead hunched over his parchment, writing out word after word and rhyme after rhyme. The light throws his brilliance into overdrive.


Throughout, though, he never loses that air of confidence, the need to show off. This makes him unlikeable in my mind, keeping him at arm’s length with most of the audience. His story arc is more like the Empire State Building and less like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. He never changes.


Paltrow plays Viola De Lesseps, a quiet, unassuming woman with a bit of a wild streak. She is the Juliet to William Shakespeare’s Romeo, but she is quite literally Romeo to Juliet.


Born to a rich family in England, Viola nonetheless craves adventure living life to the fullest, and, most importantly, poetry. Her candor is endearing to William and the audience. She’s the perfect partner for him.


The movie portrays Viola as if she is the true hero of the tale and I’d argue that is true. She pushes his buttons in all the right ways and takes the brazen step of simply following her dreams and passions. Additionally, she gets to learn the true nature of love before she’s to be married to Lord Wessex, a marriage that will surely be an unhappy one.

Her arc is more along the lines of a traditional character arc. Her change is ever so subtle and it was hard to pick up on at first. She learns to be lovable and reliable, sure, but also how to be a good partner. It’s clear that she loves William, but she has the patience to live with his escapades. Like I said before, she learns what love is and will carry that with her for the rest of her days. 1.




Shakespeare in Love was directed by John Madden, the English-born director who was nominated for, but did not win, Best Director.


At first glance, Shakespeare in Love is an overdone cliche that relies on bad comic relief and overly-sappy lines. At second glance, this is still largely true. But in order to give this one a fair shake, I did watch Saving Private Ryan before I watched Shakespeare in Love. I wanted it to have a chance to defend itself just like the defense in a courtroom.


Let me get this straight, though, Shakespeare in Love is not a bad movie. It isn’t. It just doesn’t rise to the level of film that I was expecting, particularly out of a Harvey Weinstein flick. Say what you will, but Harvey cranked out some gems in his time in Hollywood. That’s not a defense of his actions, though.


For all the grief I’ve given the film, Madden does a good job of sticking to his core themes, the first of which is love, pure and simple. Sure the love that William and Viola’s share is love at first sight, but the love is true and pure, or it’s supposed to be.


The second theme that Madden examines is his take on a society that’s striated by classes of people; the world is divided into the queen, played by Judi Dench, rich people, and then everyone else. The wealth gap is very large too with many people struggling to pay small debts.


Madden, however, largely glances over this idea and refuses to show the hard knock kind of life that many people who weren’t aristocrats lived. Granted, this would have been a tough thing to pull off, but it could have been done. Instead, Madden tries to sell the piece as everyone being happy in the 16th century, rather than coping with a hard and dirty life. 0.


Bonus Points


I know I haven’t said a lot of good things about this movie, but when Judi Dench is on the screen, I’ll always give an extra point. That woman is savage in her delivery and steals the show every time she’s on camera. She even won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Queen Elizabeth I.

Final Score 5/10


Oscar Facts


Shakespeare in Love won the 71st Academy Award for Best Picture March 21, 1999, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, and The Thin Red Line. The award was presented by Harrison Ford and accepted by Donna Gigliotti, David Parfitt, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick, and Marc Norman. In total, Shakespeare in Love won seven out of a possible 13 awards.


Other winners that night included Steven Spielberg winning Best Director, Roberto Benigni winning Best Actor, and James Coburn winning Best Supporting Actor. The ceremony was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg


Final Thoughts


Another Oscar season has come and gone. Congratulations to Green Book for taking home the 91st Best Picture. I’ll cover that ceremony when I review Green Book.


Next week, we’ll pick the blog back up with All About Eve, Marty, Chicago, Going My Way, Spotlight, 12 Years a Slave, and American Beauty.


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