Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Crowdpleasing Classical Romance Gets Done Right In Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love's Best Picture win was heavily controversial, to put it mildly. In the years since it took home this trophy, only Crash and Green Book seem to have generated equal or greater amounts of strife with their respective Best Picture wins. Its controversial award season campaign tactics, as well as the fact that it beat out a Steven Spielberg directorial effort for the award, not to mention the very understandable dark cloud that lingers on anything, like a Best Picture win, that gave the monstrous Harvey Weinstein further clout in Hollywood all, have led the reputation of Shakespeare in Love to suffer greatly. In recent years, though, its standing seems to have improved significantly as Oscar snubs and wins fade further into the past and we're all left to just take a look at the movie on its own merits.

Shakespeare in Love is all about the Bard himself, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), specifically in a period of his life when he was suffering from a great level of writer's block that he attributes to having no person in his life stirs up real creative inspiration. That all changes when he encounters Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young woman who works up a disguise as a male actor to audition for Shakespeare's newest play. de Lesseps has been stuck into an arranged marriage to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) against her will while her actual heart belongs to William Shakespeare. The two strike up a romance while working on the Bard's newest show, which, after a lot of creative back-and-forths, ends up becoming Romeo & Juliet.

Take note Green Book, Shakespeare in Love is how you do an award season crowdpleaser right. The occasionally calculated nature of this John Madden directorial effort leads to its fair share of predictable elements, including a number of comedic moments so familiar and rigidly executed that feel like they should be accompanied by a neon "LAUGH" sign. Despite Firth giving a solid performance, Lord Wessex also never works as a properly threatening force, since he's rendered as fuch a generic period piece foe. But for the most part Shakespeare in Love is actually quite the entertaining feature, especially since writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard have decided to frame this particular story in the always reliable story mold of one of those 1930's musical comedies where a group of characters has to put on a big o'l show to save a theater (the 2011 Muppets movie also used this story outline to even greater success).

Framing the story in this charmingly old-timey manner is endearing on its own but it also means we always have a constant sense of conflict to drive the story forward while it also allows for a genuine & infectious sense of love for the power of theater to burst out from the story. Shakespeare in Love posits that the world of stage acting can do everything from bring two lovers together to make a nice man out of the meanest and it's a sweet idea to hang much of the story around. It's an element of the movie that makes plotlines like a subplot revolving around Tom Wilkinson's cruel supporting character Hugh Fennyman gradually becoming smitten by the world of theater work as well as they do.

I also enjoy that Norman and Stoppard fully embrace the romance between the two leads that serves as the crux of the whole production. Norman and Stoppard just run with sequences solely fixated on Shakespeare and de Lesseps trading pieces of grandiose romantic dialogue back and forth to one another, they trust emotions rather than run from them. A similar sensibility geared towards welcoming full-blown romance with open warms also runs through the lead performances, particularly Joseph Fiennes who makes his version of Shakespeare a charming heartthrob wordsmith that one gets so immediately smitten for that you totally get why de Lesseps would fall so heavily for him.

Gwyneth Paltrow works much better in a period era setting than I would have expected and she has great chemistry with Fiennes while a horde of actors that frequently show up in these European period pieces (Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Tom Wilkinson) do fine work in their supporting roles. None of the actors here are really reinventing the wheel in their performances but nobody's asking them to do that. Instead, Shakespeare in Love is asking them to deliver performances appropriate for a sincerely executed classical romantic tale that can get the audience up on their feet cheering by the end. In that case, mission accomplished. Shakespeare in Love is a great example of how being a traditional crowdpleaser and being a well-made motion picture are not mutually exclusive qualities.

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