Oh, the fickle ways of Oscar! Back in 1998, a trio of acclaimed World War II films vied for Tinseltown's highest honor, but the Academy shunned the stark realism and visceral power of 'Saving Private Ryan' and instead fell in love with 'Shakespeare in Love,' a wildly romantic, deftly constructed, and amusing romp set in the Elizabethan era. At the time, John Madden's film was a surprising yet popular choice, a literate, sophisticated, but completely accessible feel-good comedy bursting with color, pageantry, and a whimsical regality that seduced audiences and critics alike. The movie holds up well today, but like many Oscar choices, its golden aura has tarnished a bit over the years. As I watched it recently, I appreciated all the style, wit, and passion, but little about 'Shakespeare in Love' screamed Best Picture, and I couldn't help but think Oscar's accolades resulted from a feverish yet fleeting infatuation, not a steadfast commitment.
Yet it's easy to see why the Academy was swept away. 'Shakespeare in Love' presents its title character not as a stuffy, erudite, and arrogant wordsmith, but rather as a hot-blooded neurotic frantically seeking a muse to combat his crippling writer's block. Those of us who write can relate to his desperation, but few of us (damn it!) raise our glance and find someone like Viola (Gwenyth Paltrow) waiting to be whisked off her feet and into bed. The only problem? Will (Joseph Fiennes) is married, and Viola, by mandate of the queen, is affianced to wed the broke Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a slimy rascal who's banking on his bride's substantial dowry to revitalize his fortunes.
The plot sounds simple, but conflicts galore add captivating complexities. Elizabethan theater was an all-male fraternity in the late 16th century, and women were persona non grata. The men donned dresses to play female parts, and the feisty audiences of the day bought into the illusion. Viola, however, yearns to be an actress, and her passion leads her to masquerade as a man to fulfill her dream. The cross-dressing works well (a woman pretending to be a man is romanced onstage by a man pretending to be a woman), but when Will discovers her secret, the two embark on a forbidden coupling made all the riskier by the threat of exposure. Viola becomes the inspiration for Will's latest work-in-progress, a messy farce tentatively titled 'Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter' (but which evolves into something more serious and, ultimately, iconic). The pressure to complete the play and make it a success is enormous, as the future of the theater company run by Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), who is severely in debt to loan shark Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson), depends on it. Factor in the potential favor of theatre buff Elizabeth I (Judi Dench), which would boost Will's career immeasurably, and the stakes become quite high. Yet if Viola is ever unmasked, who knows what dire fate awaits the lowly players.
Like the Elizabethan comedies it honors, 'Shakespeare in Love' is a tightly woven tale filled with frantic mix-ups, secret alliances, and a youthful vigor that keep it merrily rolling along. The script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (who's no stranger to the subject matter, having penned the classic Shakespearean send-up, 'Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead') is chock full of inside jokes and Shakespearean references that fans of the period will eat up. The writers brilliantly merge elements of 'Romeo and Juliet' into the love story of Will and Viola (and set up another Shakespeare play, 'Twelfth Night,' in the process), cleverly work in Will's rival Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), and depict the roughness of Elizabethan society with gusto. Yet despite its period setting, 'Shakespeare in Love' possesses a distinctly modern feel that makes it relatable. It may be hard to imagine, but despite being constricted by a cumbersome wardrobe, the human race in 1593 was bawdier than it is today, and the screenplay incisively captures that abandon. The love scenes between Will and Viola are especially steamy, and it's that passion that feeds Shakespeare's creativity and fuels this film.
The picture also acutely examines the inner workings of the slapdash, ramshackle world of English theatre during Elizabeth's reign. While Shakespearean plays (even his comedies) enjoy the reputation of being impeccably mounted, ultra-serious affairs, here we see how amateurish and hastily thrown together they really were, just as we witness how Shakespeare himself evolved from a hack into a serious author. Of course, there's plenty of exaggeration for theatricality's sake - and that's a big part of the fun (no one should mistake this for a serious biopic) - but the kernels of truth are enough to give us the pungent flavor of the period and more than a scent of the codes and ideals that ruled those who inhabited it.
Madden does a fine job balancing humor, romance, and a bit of drama, along with all the Elizabethan trappings, to produce a fluid, involving experience, but it's worth noting he did not win a Best Director Academy Award for his efforts. (That prize went to Steven Spielberg, proving the victory of 'Shakespeare in Love' was due more to emotional fervor than meticulous craftsmanship.) In essence, the script (which did win an Oscar) and cast carry this film, and the breezy portrayals of all the actors infuse it with vitality. Paltrow took home the Best Actress prize for her impassioned performance, beating out the likes of Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep. Though the role isn't particularly showy, Paltrow projects the right mix of strength and vulnerability, as well as a good-natured sense of daring, making it easy for the audience, just like Will, to succumb to her charms. (She's also damn good playing a man.)
Fiennes embodies the young Shakespeare well, projecting a magnetism that makes the playwright a dashing figure. Yet his good looks never mask the character's cerebral nature and tortured spirit, and he adroitly juggles the role's mental and physical challenges. He and Paltrow create palpable chemistry, and their desperate longing never feels forced. Firth, Rush (also Oscar nominated for his spirited portrayal), Wilkinson, Ben Affleck (as a conceited matinee idol), Simon Callow, and Imelda Staunton (in a priceless bit as Viola's nurse) add immeasurable flair to the proceedings, and Judi Dench, in what amounts to little more than a cameo, commands attention in a striking turn as Elizabeth I. Though on screen for a total of only eight minutes, Dench makes an undeniable impression, stealing every scene in which she appears and earning a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
As Best Picture winners go, 'Shakespeare in Love' may not be a poster child, but it's still a delightful, engaging, tightly constructed, and impeccably produced and acted romantic comedy. Even those put off by The Bard's plays will enjoy this lively period tale with a seductive modern flair.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Shakespeare in Love' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Upon insertion of the disc, previews for 'The English Patient,' 'Good Will Hunting,' 'Cold Mountain,' 'Serendipity,' and a promo for EPIX immediately pop up, followed by the full motion menu with music.
A sumptuous period piece like 'Shakespeare in Love' cries out for a lush, high-quality transfer, and Lionsgate delivers with a wonderfully vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort that showcases the movie's ornate costumes and picturesque settings. A warm glow and fine smattering of film grain lend the picture an attractive texture, and excellent contrast makes the image come alive. Though the previous DVD was plagued by several errant specks, this high-def rendering is antiseptically clean and exudes a brighter look that highlights color and depth.
And, boy, do those hues pop. Lavenders, royal blues, reds, and oranges light up the screen, as do the verdant shades of the thick English foliage. Black levels are deep and inky, yet shadow delineation never suffers. Fleshtones are also true (and much less rosy than they were on the DVD), and the pasty white makeup used on Judi Dench's Elizabeth emits the perfect degree of artifice. Sharp close-ups complement facial features well, and background elements exhibit a good degree of clarity. The embroidery, fabric, and accent work on the costumes is crisp, and in the crowded theatrical scenes, the individual faces of the groundlings are easily discernible.
Noise is absent, even in dimly lit scenes, and no banding, pixelation, or edge enhancement distract from the finely tuned image. This is a superior transfer that will please fans and videophiles alike.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies solid audio without any nagging imperfections. There's not a lot of surround activity, but subtle atmospherics in exterior sequences and during the climactic theatrical production faintly bleed into the rears. Most of the sound is anchored up front, where mild stereo separation provides a bit of expansion. All of the impeccably enunciated dialogue is crystal clear, and Stephen Warbeck's melodic, Oscar-winning music score fills the room with marvelous presence and tonal depth. A wide dynamic scale handles all of the track's components with ease, and no incidents of distortion hamper the aural experience. Bass action is quite limited, but any low-end accents nicely color the mix. This track won't bowl anyone over, even at high volume, but it complements the film well, and its seamless, unobtrusive presentation keeps us focused on the on-screen activity.
All the extras from the previous DVD, with the exception of "Shakespeare Facts," have been ported over to this release. It's a decent smattering of supplements that nicely augments the movie.
The second commentary is a kitchen sink affair, featuring a wide array of producers, writers, actors, and crew members. This compilation features more nuts-and-bolts facts about the film's production, such as the project's genesis, discovery of Joseph Fiennes, costumes, and Ben Affleck's lack of fencing experience. We also learn about the period's social history, Gwenyth Paltrow discusses her nude scenes, Affleck praises Fiennes as an actor and person, and Fiennes relates the challenges inherent in trying to make Shakespeare accessible. This is an interesting track that contains varied perspectives, but because the participants are only introduced the first time they talk, it's often difficult to identify the speaker at any given moment (unless, of course, they sound like Judi Dench). Also many of the comments are lifted from the featurette (described below), which somewhat lessens their impact.
It may be one of Oscar's more controversial Best Picture selections, but 'Shakespeare in Love' remains as seductive today as it was upon its initial release almost 14 years ago. A richly woven tapestry of highbrow comedy, passionate romance, and lavish pageantry, John Madden's film knocks its title character off his off-putting pedestal and brings him down to the bawdy environs of Elizabethan terra firma, where he becomes an accessible and identifiable figure. A scintillating script bursting with clever inside references and engaging performances from a gallery of esteemed British actors (and a couple of Hollywood movie stars) make this winner of seven Academy Awards both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Lionsgate honors the production with a high-quality Blu-ray release, featuring a lush transfer that improves upon the previous DVD, solid audio, and a fine array of supplements. Even if you're a Shakespeare-phobic, you'll fall under The Bard's spell...guaranteed. Highly recommended.