Along with this agreeable romantic conceit, Shakespeare in Love presents a pageant of colorful figures from the Elizabethan theater world: the producer Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush); the corrupt, officious Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney (Simon Callow); Shakespeare's ill-fated fellow genius Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett); and famous actors of the time such as Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes) and Ned Alleyn -- in the latter role Ben Affleck shows a comic buoyancy he hasn't before demonstrated. A mouse-breeding guttersnipe named John Webster (Joe Roberts) says he approves of the gory bits in Shakespeare's plays; he'll grow up to write great Jacobean shockers like The Duchess of Malfi.
This theatrical backdrop is the best element of the film. It probably could be said to save the picture, actually; without all the color and texture that the Rose Theater and its habitues provide, Shakespeare in Love would be little more than The Bridges of Madison County in Renaissance drag. As a love story it's conventional, but as a lighthearted show-biz story it's a blast.
Norman and Stoppard even allow themselves some fairly broad gags, placing cliches of the modern theater in an Elizabethan context. Ferrymen on the Thames behave like New York City cabbies, and a waiter at a tavern describes that day's special to his table (no doubt he's really an actor). The money man (Tom Wilkinson) backing Henslowe's production of Romeo and Juliet gets caught up in the spirit of things, and when he's given a walk-on as the Apothecary he assumes the role with the utmost seriousness. Rehearsing the big fight scene, the guy playing Tybalt gives a labored reading to a line, and Alleyn, who's playing Mercutio, makes a face and says, "Are you going to say it that way?" It's funny because we rarely think of Renaissance actors having to rehearse at all.
The cast of Shakespeare in Love seems well-rehearsed. Paltrow does heartfelt work in her third turn as a Brit, following Emma and Sliding Doors. She's uncommonly good at being heartbroken; the Renaissance clothes look astounding on her; and she's not bad at all in the passages of Romeo and Juliet she gets to do.
My favorite performance in Shakespeare in Love, however, belongs to Rush. His shaggy-haired, yellow-toothed Henslowe, who philosophically accepts the constant disasters of the-ater life, is absurdly endearing, like an Elizabethan Fozzy Bear.
Not surprisingly, Fiennes' performance is the most problematic. Can we really believe that the soaring yet lucid poetry, the stirring, overflowing emotion of Othello or King Lear or The Tempest could have come out of this boy-ingenue? Of course not. Yet I doubt it would seem any more convincing no matter how he was portrayed, or even if we could somehow meet the real Shakespeare -- the shrewd, prosperous, social-climbing, politically conservative man who comes across from what spare historical record exists. Those just-named plays seem too protean in viewpoint and too universally accessible to be the work of that guy, or of any one person, which is no doubt why -- along with class and academic elitism -- so many have tried, so unpersuasively, to attribute them to somebody higher on the social or educational ladder.
Much to its credit, Shakespeare in Love doesn't take itself seriously. But if there's nothing very imaginative about the film's portrait of Shakespeare, there's nothing terribly implausible about it, either. These filmmakers have taken a historical figure and made him into a hotblooded romantic hero. Shakespeare did that a time or two himself.
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