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Friday, May 14, 1999

What entertainers these mortals be

William Shakespeare has been so firmly ensconced in the halls of high culture for so long, that it's easy to forget that back in the day, he was pop culture, appealing to the nobles and groundlings alike. That was his genius: the ability to mix art and entertainment, to give the audiences what they wanted and enrich them with something more. To fulfill expectations and expand them.

Made very much in that spirit is "Shakespeare in Love," a breezy romantic comedy that features the Bard as a young and randy playwright on the make, bedding floozies, cutting deals and generally facing the same pressures of art and commerce that writers -- and filmmakers -- face today.

This year's Oscar magnet (seven awards, including Best Picture), "Shakespeare in Love" charms and entertains on more levels than you can shake a quill at: It's smart and silly, parodic and poetic, and simply a joy to watch.

Set in London in 1593, Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is faced with writer's block on the script he's promised to po-faced Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), owner of the Rose Theater. Henslowe is desperate for a hit -- "love and a bit with a dog, that's what audiences want," is his advice to Will -- as he needs some cash to pay off a nasty moneylender named Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson). But Shakespeare can't seem to get past the title: "Romeo and Ethel: The Pirate's Daughter."

Will's problem? He's lost his muse, which for him means an inspirational and all-consuming love that will return the passion to his writing. He finds this in spades when he meets Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy noble's daughter who fancies his verse. But Viola is engaged to the odious Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), and her station puts her beyond the embrace of a lowly poet. Faraway, but yet so close: Will does not realize that the androgynous young "man" auditioning for the lead in his new work is in fact Viola, secretly attempting to bypass the laws proscribing women from the theater.

On the one hand, this plays like classic Hollywood screwball comedy, and it escalates with ever more delicious confusions and crises as the play approaches opening night. But this use of concealed identities and a love that transcends caste is pure Shakespeare as well. Director John Madden ("Mrs. Brown") is well aware of this, and manages to blend these two strains -- verse and cinema -- together seamlessly, mostly thanks to a smart script by Tom Stoppard (who extrapolated from Shakespeare before with his play "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead").

And for those who know their Shakespeare, Stoppard has made sure there are in-jokes galore, from the flippantly throwaway use of some of Shakespeare's best lines to his rivalry with playwright Christopher Marlowe. He also managed to incorporate a good chunk of "Romeo and Juliet" in the Bard's own words, woven into a new plot, and creatively recontextualized with layers of new meaning. (And here's betting DiCaprio and Danes wanted to eat some rat poison when they saw what those lines sound like with some real passion and understanding behind them.)

Top off an inspired script with a fired-up cast, and what more couldst thou ask for, milady? Judi Dench is one snide beeatch of a queen, while Rush and Fennyman have a great, weasely rapport. But it's the stars who make this film soar. Chalk it up to maturity or maybe just good lighting, but whatever the reason, Gwyneth Paltrow has certainly taken on that old-school movie-star aura of irresistible charisma. She's simply radiant here, transforming even the film's most maudlin scenes into something truly moving, through no more than the turn of her chin or a sideways glance. Fiennes, meanwhile, brings some nice manic energy and palpable longing to his role, thankfully free of his brother Ralph's tendency toward quirkiness.

"Shakespeare in Love" does take the "Amadeus," post-rock-'n'-roll viewpoint that the artist is the work, and that great art arises not from inspired imaginings, but rather through intense personal experience. (Thus "Romeo and Juliet" is not the adroit distillation of an archetypal situation, but rather a reflection of Will's own aborted love.) This theory is as wrong as it is right, but regardless of that -- and of the fact that the Shakespeare on display here is hardly true-to-life -- the filmmakers have acted entirely in the spirit of the Bard, in tak ing a historical figure, and using him in a context to suit the times. Well done.* * * At first glance, "Illuminata" appears to share many traits with "Shakespeare in Love": a period piece set in the theater (late 19th-century Italy), with a playwright named Tuccio (John Turturro) struggling to find his muse, which -- surprise, surprise -- turns out to be the love of his leading lady (Katerine Borowitz).

Actually, "Illuminata" is "Barton Fink" with costumes, as art-minded Tuccio struggles to convince theater-owner Beverley D'Angelo that she should let him stage an obliquely avant-garde work. She should have shut him down: "Illuminata" literally gags on its own self-conscious artiness. What it sorely lacks is the healthy populism that leavened "Shakespeare," never mind some romantic crackle between the leads.

Directed by John Turturro, a fabulous actor in his own right, "Illuminata" is further evidence of why actors shouldn't direct films with themselves in the lead roles. Or, why actors shouldn't make films about actors.

At any rate, all chances for self-indulgence were grabbed with both hands and a full reel of film here: long, stilted, stagy dialogues, hammy over-the-top actors playing hammy over-the-top actors (Rufus Sewell is particularly culpable), and piss-poor "slapstick" that wouldn't even pass muster as filler for the Farrelly brothers. The shifts in mood between sensitive highbrow verse and lowbrow comedy are graceless, that is, if Christopher Walken as a bitchy gay theater critic, hissing in a faux-Italian accent and ripping off his clothes as he chases an unwilling seductee around his hotel room, can be called comedy. Methinks this is the stuff of nightmares.

"Shakespeare in Love" is playing at Shibuya Tokyu 3 and other theaters. "Illuminata" is playing at Cine Switch Ginza.

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