In defense of: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

This morning on NPR, mention was made of Romeo & Juliet. And I started muttering the prologue to myself, frankly a little surprised that I knew as much of it as I did, and then suddenly I had a moment of adoration for Mark Williams, and his role in Shakespeare in Love. And that got me to thinking … lots of people hate that movie. And honestly, I kind of wonder what they’re smoking. And so, I thought I’d try to work out what it was that makes this movie so great, and why people might dislike it so. Wish me luck.

I have to admit that when it came out, I myself was not very stoked by the idea of Shakespeare in Love. But, I got dragged to see it, I think by the boy-I-was-(not)-dating at the time, and I found it to be very enjoyable. It was funny, romantic, visually appealing, well-acted, and an overall entertaining piece of work. As the years have gone by, I’ve rewatched it, and fallen a little bit more in love. I even gleefully purchased it a couple of years ago, and I don’t really buy a lot of movies.

But what do I love about it? Well, first off, there’s the cast. I mean, good lord. Mark Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Geoffrey Rush (!!), Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton … and that’s just the bigger names among the supporting cast. Excellent cameos by Ben Affleck, Rupert Everett, and Judi Dench (hers earning her a Best Supporting Oscar). And then the leads … Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, and newly-minted Oscar winner Colin Firth. And here, I think, we come to issue number one for haters of Shakespeare in Love. A whole lot of people don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow in the first place. In the second place, she is notable in her American-ness beside this glittering cast of Brits. Thirdly, she attracted a great deal of ire from many film-goers when she won Best Actress at the Oscars for this role. I dismiss the first two arguments out of hand. While I will often avoid films because they have actors in them I don’t like, I will also acknowledge when those actors manage to do a good job. (Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction? Decent job.) Additionally, her British accent wasn’t at all bad, and neither was her acting. Was the role of Lady Viola a major stretch, or a difficult role? No, but that doesn’t mean that we should just ignore a job well done. Now, having said that, do I think she ought to have won the Oscar? No. I don’t. Like most people, I think that Cate Blanchett (as Queen Elizabeth) was robbed. However, I’m not a voting member of the Academy. I could also say that sometimes, an outstanding acting job in an otherwise mediocre film is harder to really recognize than a solid acting job in a more enjoyable (and successful) one. I’m not offering excuses … all I’m saying is that one’s dislike for an actor or one’s disappointment regarding awards being handed out is no reason to just throw a good movie out the window. Anyway. Moving on.

What else did I like about Shakespeare in Love? Well, the literary qualities. The Shakespeare (mainly Romeo & Juliet) used in the movie is really all quite well done. I would totally want to see an actual production of R&J with all those people in it. I will admit that it’s not the most difficult of his plays to perform or understand, but that’s beside the point. It’s all very well-handled. Additionally, there are some fun little literary jokes thrown in. You know the kid who eventually outs Gwyneth as a woman? He’s a joke. He spends his time feeding mice to cats and grumbling that if he wrote plays, they would contain more blood, and at one point, he is asked his name. “John Webster,” he replies. Well, John Webster was, in fact, a playwright, several years younger than Shakespeare, who did lean more towards violent, disturbing, and supernatural themes. See? Funny! Makes me giggle every time. The excellent writing and literary cleverness really shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, given that the screenplay was written in part by Tom Stoppard. How can you diss something written by Tom Stoppard? It just ain’t right.

Ultimately, I think the reason people are cranky about Shakespeare in Love comes back to the Oscars in 1999. The biggest film that year besides SiL was Saving Private Ryan. Obviously, also a very, very good film, just completely different. I have no doubt that a great many people would argue that Saving Private Ryan ought to have won Best Picture. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them, either. I will, however, point out that they (like me) were obviously not voting members of the Academy. Oh, well. It’s one of the flaws of the whole system, comparing apples to oranges and then declaring one the victor. Just because one wins the big prize, though, doesn’t mean that the other one is no good, or vice versa. And I feel like that’s what a lot of people have decided about Shakespeare in Love. Ok, maybe it’s not “better” than Saving Private Ryan in terms of its vision or cinematography or direction or subject matter (that’s the big one, I think). But what it is is a well-made film with snappy dialogue, both humorous and poignant moments, a pretty good plot, some romance, some fine acting, beautiful costumes, and a lot of charm.

I guess it boils down to what you want to get out of a movie-viewing experience. Do you want to be emotionally manipulated or intellectually stimulated or merely entertained? Frankly, I find it hard to believe that any one person only wants one of those all the time. Sometimes, you want to be enlightened. Sometimes, you just want to laugh. And in the case of the Academy Awards, as I have previously suggested, all they really mean is that more people within a certain body felt the same way at a certain point in time. Now, I could be wrong. Maybe lots of people just hated Shakespeare in Love long before the Oscars. Obviously, not everyone agrees that Colin Firth is a good actor, or that Shakespeare is about beautiful language, or that a particular joke is funny. But that’s why we have different movies, and why I have a movie blog: so I can tell you about the ones that I like. And Shakespeare in Love is high on that list, and I will defend it to anyone, anytime. So there.

Are you a Shakespeare in Love hater? Here’s your chance! Tell me why!

8 responses to “In defense of: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

  1. Well I’m actually not a SiL hater as I put this in my top five movies about british monarch. But I wholeheartedly agree Blanchett was robbed in the highest order as she was waaaaaay more compelling as Elizabeth than Gwynnie could ever attempted. I mean, Blanchett has always been ten times the better actress.

    Anyway, I just remember now that Firth had worked with Rush before, though not as extensively as in King’s Speech.

    • Indeed! Cate is amazing and generally astounds in whatever she does, though to be brutally honest she was a flop in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as Irina Spalko – I mean what even is that? And as far as comparisons to Ms. Paltrow, no contest.

  2. I don’t think there’s a lot of hate for the film out there – I think a lot of people enjoyed it. I think there was just a rather harsh response to the fact it beat out Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line to the award, both deemed more “worthy” films.

    The big question mark for me is how a film like this can win the award, but The Dark Knight didn’t even get nominated (and Inception wouldn’t have been nominated if the category was still five films).

    • I suppose it could just be in one place (a website I frequent), but yeah, I think most of the issue comes from its winning the Academy Award. It’s all politics, and it’s all people’s opinion. 🙂 I’m afraid you won’t get any help from me, because I thought The Dark Knight was a really bad movie. Yeah, I know. If you poke around on the blog a bit, you’ll find my diatribe. Anyway, thanks for reading!

  3. Hmm…I wouldn’t say that I am hater,but I am not a fan either. When I watched it long time ago,I was thinking why in the world can this movie won Oscar? I still am thinking the same way…tho I realize now that Oscar not always meet my taste of movies.

    It is nice to read your point of view on the movie,but no matter what people say,this remain as a movie I will watch once in a life time 😉

  4. Shakespeare in Love is the second best film of the entire 1990s (to Schindler’s List.) It’s got everything that makes a movie great and nothing that makes a movie weak.

    At various times Paltrow played a young noblewoman, a young noblewoman playing a man, a young noblewoman playing a man playing Romeo and a young noblewoman playing a man playing a woman playing Juliet; She more than deserved the Oscar.

    As for Saving Private Ryan, after the opening D-Day sequence it was simply a rehash of every war movie cliche from every one of Spielberg’s favorite movies. It also had an insultingly transparent “twist”. Let’s see. Tom Hanks is how old? And if we add 55 years to that we get….

    Was it a bad film? Not at all, but it certainly wasn’t better than Shakespeare in Love, which is still an original take on the whole Shakespeare mythos. But it did have all that icky kissing and romance and stuff in it, and not one single tank blowing a house apart, so therefore it must be bad, right?

  5. Enjoyed your review and agree with your assessment. As far as the flack winning out over the war films, I definitely think a lot has to do with what’s going on in the world at the time, how the judges wanted to make a statement or were otherwise turned off by more war films, violence, etc. Shakespeare in Love is a good film, funny and well written, a superb cast as you point out and I don’t know if it is just me or not but Geoffrey Rush in a period film tends to just make the whole movie better. Cheers->

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