Please Note: The screen captures used here are taken from an earlier standard-definition DVD, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
I'm starting to feel a surge of '90s nostalgia lately, which is something I thought I'd never say. Though, to be fair, it's really only for the cinema of the decade, and mainly due to the recent spate of Miramax films making their way to Blu-Ray. In recent weeks, I have reviewed both The Piano and The English Patient, two of their most notable "prestige" pictures. Say what you will about the Weinsteins and their business practices, but back in the day, they gave us the best of indie cinema on one side and intelligent, if maybe over-thought, literary/art-house dramas on another. Thinking back, at least in my memory, it always seemed like there was something to go see, and while audiences might have been too drunk on the moviegoing experience to always judge the work accurately, the landscape was still a sight better than the obsession with spectacle and the never-ending recycling currently stinking up cineplexes.
Amidst the awards juggernauts unleashed by the Weinsteins, Shakespeare in Love is among the frothiest. It's certainly the only one of my recent views that goes for crowd-pleasing entertainment in a big way, delivering some smart laughs and passionate romance. While it seems even slicker than it did the last time I saw it--its mechanics are pretty obvious, especially in the first 45 minutes or so--Shakespeare in Love still manages to be enjoyable and punch more than a few emotional buttons.
Shakespeare in Love was released in 1998. It was directed by John Madden (The Debt), and written by Marc Norman (Cutthroat Island) and the always excellent Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead.) It stars Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare, and Gwyneth Paltrow won the Oscar for her performance as Viola De Lesseps, the rich girl who dreams of the stage. The story is set in Elizabethan England, with Dame Judi Dench playing the Queen, and it takes a liberal approach to the history of the period. The conceit is that everyday life was, essentially, much like how we might imagine it from Shakespeare's comedies. Truth and reality are only vehicles for some well-worn, but effective, fictions.
Shakespeare is a layabout who struggles with romantic misdeeds and writer's block, both of which are connected. He is always short of cash and hustling between rival theater directors, though Geoffrey Rush's Henslowe has his own cash flow problems and is indebted to a loan shark who won't put the man's feet in the fire (literally) if the Bard can deliver his latest comedy, an early version of Romeo and Juliet. Inspiration eventually comes in the form of a fresh young actor who also turns out to be a beautiful woman in disguise. At the time, all female roles in theatrical productions were played by boys whose voices hadn't changed, so a girl who dreams of strutting the boards is left without much opportunity. Viola sneaks into auditions in drag, and she immediately gets the Romeo role. When the author discovers her secret, love blossoms, and in typical Tom Stoppard fashion, their coupling begins to influence the play, blurring the lines between what is "actual" and what is "invented." This means the ensuing love story is not without its complications. Shakespeare's machinations threaten to catch up with him, and Viola is due to be married off to a man that is far from her first choice.
That man is played by Colin Firth, and the fact that an actor of his abilities occupies such a minor role is indicative of the immense level of talent that was gathered for Shakespeare in Love. In addition to the actors already mentioned, other cast members include Tom Wilkinson, Ben Affleck, Imelda Staunton, Downton Abbey's Jim Carter, and Rupert Everett as Shakespeare's rival, Dr. Faustus-author Christopher Marlowe. For as exceptional as all these people are (well, okay, Rush overacts through most of it, and Affleck is a little out of his element), it's really Gwyneth's show. I know there is much to take issue with in terms of the actress' current off-screen persona, but it doesn't take long watching Shakespeare in Love to remember why she was all the rage fifteen years ago. Shakespeare in Love, alongside the Jane Austen-adaptation Emma, represents Paltrow at her best and most charming (allowing for a side compartment for her turn as Margot Tenenbaum, of course). She flits through the material naturally, seeming at once to be both accessible and mysterious, operating in the dual role as is not just necessary to her ruse, but also essential for her survival as an intelligent woman in the period. Her life is all about play acting, about hiding emotions and thoughts "unbecoming" of her position. Paltrow gets that vulnerability perfectly, while also making the love stuff sexy and fun.
In addition to Paltrow's Oscar, Shakespeare in Love won 6 other Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Most notably, Sandy Powell (Velvet Goldmine, Young Victoria) took home the trophy for Costume Design and the team of Martin Childs and Jill Quierter triumphed for set decoration. These are wins that were definitely earned, there is a tremendous level of effort evident on the screen. The clothes and the art direction are incredible, and they were expertly photographed by Richard Greatex (A Knight's Tale). He brings a brightness to the proceedings that appropriately spotlights both the physical and metaphorical constructions that comprise the production. In fact, all of the work here is top-notch, with maybe only the direction being a bit lacking. Madden does a fine job, but there is nothing exceptional about his guidance; his directorial work is best described as serviceable. It serves the script and the actors, and perhaps Madden deserves some recognition just for staying out of the way.
Shakespeare in Love noticeably improves in its second hour, mostly because it plays to the extremes of both comedy and tragedy. The giddiness of new love gives way to heavier things, as the consequences from the affair need to be answered for. It is at this point that it becomes clear just how many elements Norman and Stoppard have been juggling in their script, and that their narrative isn't solely intended to mirror Romeo & Juliet, but also lay some groundwork for Twelfth Night. Arranged marriages, disguises and mistaken identities, a good swordfight--all Shakespearian devices that come to play in Shakespeare in Love. The film's conclusion proves satisfying and tidy, but without overdoing it. There were more crowd-pleasing choices that the filmmakers could have made, so it's cool to see them find a happy middle where certain expectations are satisfied without sacrificing the smarter aspects of the production.
The 1080p transfer for Shakespeare in Love is presented at a 2.34:1 aspect ratio. The studio has treated this as a prestige title and really done a nice job on moving Madden's picture on up to the high-definition shelf. Colors are vibrant, and detail is exceptional. A film like this, so revered for its art direction and costuming, really deserves all the illumination Blu-Ray can bestow upon a movie, and so regardless of what you think of the story, you can otherwise appreciate the tremendous work that went in to each scene. Skin tones look particularly nice, with Paltrow's pale complexion and blonde locks giving her an exceptional looking "other" quality, whilst Dench's Elizabeth looks even more strange now that her powdered image is even more clear. Is it possible she is the original death-clown goth?
The original soundtrack has been remixed in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio (lossless) and makes full use of all four speakers. Scenes with lots of activity are given a full overhaul to work the ambient effects and make for a listening experience that is surprisingly real and all encompassing. Music has some excellent punch, and all dialogue is clear and sharp.
Subtitle options are Spanish and English, as well as English Closed Captioning.
Since I only previously owned the very first DVD edition of Shakespeare in Love, and recall purchasing it mere moments before the 2000 Collector's Edition was announced, I'm pleased that I am now rewarded for never double dipping by getting all of the extras with the Blu-Ray. This new edition essentially mirrors that twelve-year-old disc, including the dual commentary tracks. The first track is the director, John Madden, going over the production on his own. It is largely story focused and can be a little dry at times, but it's still worth a casual listen.
The second track is a group effort edited together from separate sessions. It includes actors (Paltrow, Fiennes, Dench, Rush, Firth, and Affleck), writers (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard), costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Martin Childs, producer Donna Gigliotti and David Parfitt, and cinematographer Richard Greatex. I enjoy these kinds of tracks, they tend to be more lively and give us a variety of specialized points of view.
The main documentary on the movie is "Shakespeare in Love and On Film," an all-encompassing behind-the-scenes featurette that examines the production, from development to awards and everything in between. Some of the talking heads are redundant if you've listened to the commentary--heck, some of these interview sessions are what they made the commentary from--but overall, it's informative and light. The best part is the exploration of previous cinematic adaptations of the Bard. The costuming gets more focused attention in the shorter piece "Academy Award Winning Costumes."
A short collection of deleted scenes are slightly more substantial than your standard collection of trims. There is also the theatrical trailer and a collection of television commercials.
Recommended. Not as great as I remember, but not as bad as some would have you believe. Shakespeare in Love is a slick production, but its slickness is as much a virtue as it is a detriment. The well-oiled story machine delivers on the comedy and romance, and an impressive cast brings familiar characters to life in excellent fashion. Paltrow shines as the Bard's would-be lover, and Joseph Fiennes does a nice job playing the author as a well-meaning scoundrel. The Blu-Ray of Shakespeare in Love boasts an excellent new transfer and substantial older extras; it's a solid upgrade.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.