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Will and Viola

I've been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1998 winner, Shakespeare in Love, directed by John Madden and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes.

Shakespeare in Love is a comic romance set in Elizabethan times, based on the idea that Shakespeare's romance with a young noblewoman could have inspired him while writing Romeo & Juliet. The film is a playful adventure with plenty of in-jokes for Shakespeare fans.

The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. In addition to Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love also won Best Actress in a Leading Role (Paltrow); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Judi Dench); Best Art Direction - Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Music - Original Musical or Comedy Score; and Best Writing - Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.



Shakespeare in Love poster



Expectations of romances have changed dramatically since Shakespeare's day. In his time, romances typically ended with weddings, and they still do with romantic comedies. However, most film romances today end with heartache. In Shakespeare in Love screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard managed to blend elements of a Shakespearean romance with the elements of a modern film romance.

As the film begins, young Shakespeare is writing a play he's dubbed, "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter." It's initially proposed to be a comedy with wacky elements such as "some business with a dog." The owner of the theater where Shakespeare works, played by Geoffrey Rush, is in dire financial straits and hoping for a comic gem.

Naturally, as we a know, Shakespeare's destiny lies elsewhere. In this version, he meets Viola (Paltrow), a young noblewoman fascinated by the stage but also engaged against her will to a nobleman. She is infatuated with Shakespeare's writing and contrives to win a part in his latest play, disguising herself as a man.

Paltrow and Fiennes are well cast, with Paltrow bringing both buoyancy and vulnerability to the role. Fiennes plays Shakespeare as a struggling artist, at alternate times confident and uncertain.

The dialogue is rich with Shakespearean references but also refreshingly modern. That's the beauty of this movie: like Shakespeare's plays, it can appeal to viewers on both a high and a low level. There is word play, yes, but there is also slapstick and romance.

Much attention is paid to production details such as the setting, costumes, and props. It is no wonder those the filmmakers received Oscars in those areas.

Dench has a relatively small role as Queen Elizabeth, but it is a very important role, both guiding the action and serving as a sort of "chorus" for the play. Approaching it with her usual full-bodied commitment, Dench portrays Queen Elizabeth as a wise, perceptive ruler.

When I first watched this movie, 12 years ago, I immediately fell in love with it. Since then, I have listed it amongst my favorite films of all time. Rewatching it, I was delighted to see how well it held up to my initial impressions.

Shakespeare in Love could have easily fallen into the trap of many costume dramas -- being apparently frozen in time, filled with heightened dialogue that prevents modern viewers from relating to the characters. Instead, the film effortlessly blends Shakespearean and modern conventions, staying true to both.

Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)

Moral:
Costume dramas don't have to be stuffy.


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