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Shakespeare in Love(1998)
It is the summer of 1593, and the rising young star of London's theatre scene, Will Shakespeare, faces a scourge like no other: a paralyzing bout of writer's block. While the great Elizabethan age of entertainment unfolds around him, Will is without inspiration on material. What Will needs is a muse--and in an extraordinary moment in which life imitates art, he finds and falls for a woman who draws him into his own dramatic adventure of star-crossed love. It all begins when Lady Viola, desperate to become an actor at a time when women were forbidden from such depravity, disguises herself as a man to audition for Will's play. But the guise slips away as their passion ignites. Now Will's quill again begins to flow, this time turning love into words, as Viola becomes his real-life Juliet and Romeo finds his reason to exist. Yet all is not well in Will's world. For even as the parchment begins to pile up, he's plagued by the fact that Lady Viola must marry the insufferable Lord Wessex.
For more about Shakespeare in Love and the Shakespeare in Love Blu-ray release, see Shakespeare in Love Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on January 17, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Colin Firth
Director: John Madden (I)
» See full cast & crew
Shakespeare in Love Blu-ray Review
Love and a bit with a dog—that’s what they want.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, January 17, 2012
Every so often, a major awards season decision will send the general public, or at least those keyed into whatever artistic pursuit is being feted, into a frenzy of reactionary disbelief. In 1971, Broadway cognoscenti were atwitter (this was obviously long before there was the "real" Twitter) when the critics' darling, seemingly overnight-legendary Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies cleaned up in most of the major Tony Award categories, but ended up losing the "big" award, Best Musical, to Two Gentlemen of Verona, a rock and pop version of Shakespeare's venerable classic. Gentlemen was the Broadway follow up to Hair for composer Galt McDermot, and while it was well received, it as a Joseph Papp Public Theater production, in a way the polar opposite of the glitzy, huge, and unabashedly glamorous (albeit decrepit—by design) Follies, and some of the Broadway ruling elite couldn't quite believe that this "bastard child," a rock-inflected musical no less, had taken the big prize away from a show that was written by the theater's anointed Golden Boy of music and lyrics, and produced and directed by Harold Prince, a Broadway insider if ever there were one.
A generation later, much the same thing happened in the film world, when in 1999 Shakespeare in Love wrested the Best Picture Academy Award from the vigorous fingers of Saving Private Ryan, a film which not only bore the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg—filmdom's analog to Broadway's Hal Prince—but which also had received rave reviews and was universally lauded as, well, the best picture in Spielberg's long and storied career. How odd that The Bard should twice eclipse the seeming favorites to take home the prize! But in the case of Shakespeare in Love, the decision is at least a little easier understand, at least if one takes into consideration the fact that Hollywood loves stories about showbiz, and that ultimately is what Shakespeare in Love is, despite the many (as in many) tangents adorning its central conceit. Shakespeare in Love rather brilliantly recasts modern day Hollywood neuroses—including neurosis itself, as a matter of fact—as part and parcel of the Elizabethan age. We therefore are privy to all sorts of shenanigans featuring showbiz "types" like the scheming producer, the playwright who's stumped for material (and who is in analysis for it), and the starry-eyed ingénue who just wants her "big break". Shakespeare in Love is often deliciously, even deliriously, funny, but it's also incredibly smart, benefiting from script doctor Tom Stoppard's unmatched wordplay and a similar sort of "meta" ethos Stoppard brought to his own iconic reimagining of Shakespeare, Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Do you need a solid grounding in The Bard, his life and works in order to fully enjoy Shakespeare in Love? Well, no, not generally speaking, but that said, it doesn't hurt. In fact, the more you know about Shakespeare the more you'll probably get a kick out of how co-screenwriters Marc Norman (who had the original conception and wrote the first draft of the screenplay) and Tom Stoppard (who came on board to touch it up, adding several minor characters and give it is his special brand of linguistic genius) have so artfully blended real life and fictional characters, placed them in an Elizabethan setting, but made the story feel strangely current. Shakespeare in Love is almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of performances and ideas, but the basic plot can be boiled down to fairly simple, easily understood terms.
Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is a rakish London lad with a propensity for bedding women, despite his wife and children (who live in "far off" Stratford), and who makes his living both as a bit player and as a nascent writer of plays and poetry. His chief competition in the writing arena is Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), a writer both better known and luckier than Will, as Marlowe has the good fortune to be writing for the larger and more royally favored theater company in town. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is writing for the down and out Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), a scheming producer who is only as good as his last hit, which unfortunately for Henslowe was quite some time ago. Debt collectors are hounding Henslowe, and Henslowe in turn is hounding Shakespeare to turn out a quick comedy, something that will bring paying customers in by the handful. Shakespeare has proposed a pirate comedy called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. The only problem is Shakespeare is suffering from a serious case of writer's block, and needs a "Muse" (read: a nubile young woman) to unlock his tongue-tied writing hands.
Into this fray wanders young Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman in love with Romance (with a capital R) and poetry, not to mention a certain poet named Shakespeare. Viola also has the acting bug, which is a bit of a problem as in Elizabethan times, female performers were actually against the law. Women's roles were usually played by pre- pubescent or adolescent males. That doesn't stop spunky Viola, of course, and she dons men's attire, a wig and a fake mustache and goatee and assumes the role of one "Thomas Kent," who is quickly hired to play a leading role in Shakespeare's latest opus. In the meantime, Shakespeare and Viola have become attracted to each other, which is also a problem because Viola has been promised (by her father, as was the norm in those days) to the Earl of Wessex (Colin Firth), who plans to quickly marry the girl and carry her off to ol' Virginny, where he has a large tobacco plantation.
That's the plot in a relatively brief nutshell, but it gives little idea of the brilliance and flavor that Shakespeare in Love delivers, an approach which fully (if fictionally) humanizes Shakespeare (and, in a way, Queen Elizabeth, played by the peerless Dame Judi Dench), but which more than anything gives us a backstage glimpse that may be resolutely 16th century but which seems essentially timeless. Shakespeare in Love very smartly plays against our contemporary points of view to explore historic characters and times, and while some of the film is unabashedly silly (Shakespeare has some "swag" from Stratford-on-Avon, or his "analyst" measures time with an hourglass), the film also exults in just plain delicious language. Even those without a solid grounding in Shakespeare are going to catch some of the wordplay on display here, like the busker who is bumbling a nascent form of "a rose by any other name" as Shakespeare walks by, or fun little moments like Henslowe stuttering "The show must—", to which Shakespeare quickly responds "Go on!"
John Madden directs with a fair amount of panache, if occasionally a bit too busy style, but this film belongs to the screenplay and the magnificent performances. If Paltrow isn't exactly believable as a young boy, she's incredibly winsome as a young woman, and she displays a spunk and pluck which are immensely enjoyable. Fiennes plays Shakespeare like a sort of tempestuous matinee idol, and his interplay with both Paltrow and Rush, who is hilarious, is superb. Dench is of course imperious in that patented way she seems to share with Maggie Smith, and the entire cast is just stuffed to bursting with one great turn after another. Even some of the relatively minor parts are played by fantastic actors, or at least stars, including Imelda Staunton as Viola's Nurse, Colin Firth as Paltrow's erstwhile suitor Essex, and Ben Affleck as actor Ned Alleyn. Speaking of Maggie Smith, keep your eyes peeled for her Downton Abbey co-star Jim Carter (Carson), who plays one of the actors in Henslowe's troupe.
So, in the grand, award season scheme of things, should Shakespeare in Love have eclipsed Saving Private Ryan for that controversial Best Picture Oscar? That of course is a value judgment, as any award inevitably is, but for the naysayers who discount any inherent worth, or at least any relative worth, with regard to Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, it might be wise to simply watch the film again. It's obviously a much lighter entertainment than Saving Private Ryan is, with perhaps less lofty ambitions, but it also is much more ambitious than the hilarious quote of Henslowe (included above), where the theater director succinctly states what audiences want at a bare minimum from any entertainment: "Love and a bit with a dog—that's what they want." You might indeed get that with Shakespeare in Love, but you also get a good deal more, including one of the most literate screenplays of the past quarter century or more.
Shakespeare in Love Blu-ray, Video Quality
Shakespeare in Love is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate-Miramax with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.34:1. The film boasts an incredibly sumptuous production and costume design which both pop magnificently throughout this high definition presentation. Fine detail is really exceptional, to the point where individual pill can be made out quite clearly on Nurse's cowl, to give just one example. Colors are very vibrant, again especially noticeable in the film's gorgeous costumes. But flesh tones are also well saturated and accurate appearing, and the film also boasts a natural looking veneer of grain. Contrast is strong, if perhaps not quite up to snuff in a couple of the film's dark exteriors (the evening shots of Viola's house, one of which is included as a screencap to this review, being a good example). Otherwise, though, this is a sterling looking presentation that is sharp and clear and extremely well detailed.
Shakespeare in Love Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Shakespeare in Love's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track is rather surprisingly immersive, considering the film's romantic comedy ambience. The bustling streets of London are awash in crowd sounds and fun (if perhaps a bit disturbing) ambient sounds like people regularly dumping their badpans out in the streets. The film also benefits immensely from the evocative underscore, which regularly utilizes actual songs of the period. A dance scene at Viola's house is a perfect example of this track's expressive capability, as it delicately reproduces the sounds of lute and recorder while also easily capturing the rustle of the women's thick dresses and the clomp of feet hitting the dance floor. Dialogue is cleanly presented and easily audible, and the track boasts excellent fidelity throughout all frequency ranges. There really isn't any LFE to speak of in this film, other than perhaps a couple of moments featuring fireworks.
Shakespeare in Love Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Shakespeare in Love Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I frankly wasn't quite sure how I was going to feel about Shakespeare in Love after not having seen it since it first came out. While I certainly enjoyed the film when it premiered, I may not have fully appreciated the wit and flash of its incredible screenplay, or at the very least I didn't remember how brilliantly smart the writing was. The good news is this film has aged remarkably well and while some might argue it's slight, a cursory review of the film's many sleights of hand with regard to Shakespeare and his legacy would argue rather forcefully otherwise. This Blu-ray offers spectacular video and audio and a nice array of supplements, and it comes Highly recommended.
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Next year, Lionsgate Home Entertainment will release the Best Picture Academy Award Winners: 5 Film Collection on Blu-ray. A bundle of highly acclaimed Miramax and Lionsgate catalog titles, the set contains Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, Chicago, No ...
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