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!