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Review: To see, or not to see, 'Shakespeare in Love'

Web posted on:
Thursday, December 10, 1998 12:46:35 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- My betrothed and I were recently invited by Miramax Films to attend the star-studded world premiere of the new Gwyneth Paltrow movie, "Shakespeare in Love." (I know -- I'm getting more impressive every day.) This was an effectively glitzy affair, during which I was finally able to gawk at Paltrow's otherworldly ivory shoulders, right there in the flesh.

I also spotted, because I was looking, such monumental luminaries as Tina Louise, Ben Affleck, and Werner Klemperer! Plus, a woman named Hillary Clinton made an endearing pre-game speech about how nice it was to be screening a film in an actual theater instead of at stuffy old Camp David. She seemed like a nice person, and I'm fully prepared to vote for her again. Oh. You mean I wasn't voting for her?!

. . .

All that stuff was fun. The movie, on the other hand, didn't completely do it for me ... although that doesn't mean that it won't work like gangbusters for you. If you're into knowingly drippy love-story/period pieces, I beseech thee, oh reader, to adorn thy bottom with the finest pantaloons and attend. It's an appealingly old-fashioned film, full of inspired actors and crisp cinematography.

It also boasts a striking production design. Director John Madden displays an exceedingly steady hand, and I could fully sense people getting worked up over the love story as I watched it (although I won't be presumptuous enough to speak for Ginger and Colonel Klink). So the movie's likely to find a sizable audience when it gets a national release.

Clip: "My Lady My Love"
Video clip: 2Mb QuickTime

Clip: "Wager"
Video clip: 2Mb QuickTime

Unfortunately, I found a lot of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's gorgeously verbal script to be too cute by a mile. There are persistently sly references to Shakespeare's works -- the tone is a lot like Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" -- that call for copious amounts of New York-style in-joke chuckling.

There are also lots of sarcastic remarks about the centuries-old mistreatment of writers by uncomprehending producers, which fills up valuable time that would have been better utilized by focusing on Paltrow's elegant swooning. The producers in the audience seemed to love it, though.

A muse to relieve writer's block

Joseph Fiennes (the not-untalented brother of Ralph) co-stars as the young Bard himself, who's suffering through a bout of writer's block as the story begins. He's being pressured by theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, now almost fully repented from the grandstanding of "Shine") and producer Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) to hurry up and finish his new play. Will has tentatively titled the work-in-progress, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."

Har-har, right? And that's exactly what I'm talking about. Either you'll scream at jokes like that, or they'll quickly irritate you the way they did me. This goes on pretty continuously, sometimes amusingly, mostly not. There are also small dashes of Shakespeare's own dialogue peppering several conversations. That's a little more bearable, but, gee whiz, aren't we clever? I felt like I would get extra credit if I shouted out the reference before anyone else did.

Paltrow plays Lady Viola, an upper-crust aspiring actress who falls for young Shakespeare. Women in those days were not allowed on stage, as you probably know, so Paltrow has to audition while dressed as a boy. This is one of those Clark Kent/Superman situations, in which a woman who looks like Paltrow is immediately sized up to be a man because she's stuck a fake mustache and goatee on her face. I have more trouble convincing people I'm a man than Lady Viola does!

It's not long, though, before the cat's out of the bag, and Will, reciprocating the heaving-bosom love of his lady, has found his muse. The affair grows more heated, even though Lady Viola is engaged (against her will ... which would be considered a brilliant pun if it were included in the film) to the arrogantly possessive Lord Essex (Colin Firth). Lady Viola also continues to rehearse the play, all the while trying to maintain the scam that she's a male ... even as other people are catching glimpses of her and Will necking backstage.

Eventually, we start getting longer sequences that feature Shakespeare's melodious dialogue, since much screen time is taken up with the rehearsals. Affleck briefly plays the self-absorbed actor Ned Alleyn, and the best thing you can say about his wavering accent is that at least he isn't Keanu Reeves. He is given a couple of amusing lines, though, and he never made me flinch.

Dench as higher royalty

Judi Dench (what a Dame) also has a couple of small-but-important scenes as Queen Elizabeth. The story's wrap-up falls on Dench's shoulders, and she bites off a chunk that a lesser actor couldn't possibly chew when she unbelievably shows up at the debut performance of "Romeo and Juliet" and starts casually cementing the story's basic motifs.

Dench plays Elizabeth as more sardonically self-aware than she's usually presented (she hardly seems as fragile as the recent Cate Blanchett version), and that final sequence is one of the more enjoyable passages in the film.

Far worse things could (and certainly will) happen in the movie industry than this film becoming a major hit. Nobody involved has anything to be embarrassed about, that's for sure. And, when you get right down to it, Dench isn't the only one who's bitten off a rather considerable chunk. I just wish that the script wasn't so insistent on showing off. Shakespeare, even when he kowtowed to the peasants, knew when to quit.

Look out! Paltrow takes her clothes off a couple of times in "Shakespeare in Love." The scenes are tender lovemaking sessions that (like the rest of the film's visual scheme) are very tastefully handled. There's not much violence, unless you count a pretty nifty sword fight. By all means, take a literate date. Not yet rated. 120 minutes.

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