Geniuses often come across unimpressively in the movies. Amadeus presented Mozart as a giggling fop. Both Kirk Douglas and Tim Roth gave us Van Gogh as a pathetic head case. I.Q.'s Albert Einstein was a cupid-playing old duffer. Ken Russell's freaky depictions of Liszt and Mahler speak for themselves. When Tim Burton made a loving biopic about Z-movie director Ed Wood, it had the odd effect of validating Wood as a genuine artist, but usually the movies tend to be reductive when an authentic talent is the subject; he or she is often made into a buffoon or a bastard.
The ungenerous might suggest that this is the revenge of ordinary talents on great ones, but the alternative -- say, the icon treatment afforded Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy -- promises audiences a good deal more agony than ecstasy. It's probably better for us to be reminded that our cultural giants were human beings with human needs. Shakespeare had to put on his tights one leg at a time just like the rest of us.
In director John Madden's cheeky, delightfully playful romantic comedy Shakespeare In Love, the budding Bard of Avon is played by Joseph Fiennes, the trim, wide-eyed fellow who, as the enigmatic Earl of Leicester, can be seen deflowering the Virgin Queen in Elizabeth. In Madden's film he's up to more speculative historical fooling around.
As Shakespeare, Fiennes sports closely cropped hair and a neat beard. He wears a shiny black doublet, left hanging oh-so-casually open, and he runs around a lot. He's forever charging headlong through the crowded, squalid streets of 1593 London or over drawbridges or through the Rose Theater. As the story progresses, his clothes keep getting dustier. Just as Mozart's wig in Amadeus made him look like one of the Stray Cats, Shakespeare's black jacket here makes him resemble Mad Max.
Most of his running around is done in pursuit of a young gentlewoman named Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), a lover of the theater and of Shakespeare's works in particular; she often attends the command performances for the aging, contrary Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench). Viola dreams of being an actress but is separated from the profession both by class and by the still more inconvenient fact that actresses don't yet exist in England -- boy actors play the female roles. In an adventurous mood, Viola turns the tables on convention, disguising herself as a boy and sneaking into an audition for Shakespeare's new comedy, whose working title is Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter.
Unaware of this charade, Shakespeare woos and beds the glorious Viola on her own turf, even though she's soon to be married off to a titled but cash-poor skunk (Colin Firth) who plans to drag her away to the Virginia colony, where he suspects there may be a future in this tobacco thing. Shakespeare is no more available than Viola for the long term; he's already married and a father, though his family back in Stratford doesn't seem to slow him down much on his rounds of London wenchery.
Nonetheless, he and Viola waste no time falling into passionate, bittersweet love, which shapes Romeo and Ethel into Romeo and Juliet. As the author becomes increasingly aware of the impermanence of his affair with Viola, his play curves away from comedy toward tragedy.
Historically this is all nonsense, of course. Shakespeare no more invented the plot of Romeo and Juliet than did Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein when they wrote West Side Story; he filched the yarn wholesale from The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, a long, dreary 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke (and Brooke's ghost should be grateful for the theft). Indeed, Shakespeare had already borrowed the setting and other elements from Brooke's work for one of his earliest plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
But if Shakespeare In Love is baloney, it's not stupid baloney; it's actually pretty learned baloney. The plot has some elements in common with Cothburn Madison O'Neal's The Dark Lady, an American novel of 1964 in which Shakespeare is the front for the plays written by a woman disguised as a boy actor in his troupe. But Shakespeare In Love is less ambitious; the idea here is simply to create an incident in the young man's life that moved him toward maturity, both as man and artist.
The story -- by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, no less -- is studded with allusions to or paraphrases of famous Shakespearean quotes, as if we're seeing their genesis. Woven into the story are themes that will become recurrent in his plays: beguiling heroines who disguise themselves as boys, ardent lovers climbing up balconies, women trapped in unhappy betrothals. Viola, whose name has just the significance you'd expect, has a bustling, faithful nurse (Imelda Staunton) who's plainly the prototype for Juliet's, and there's even a fickle wench named Rosaline (Sandra Reinton) for whom Shakespeare forgets his infatuation when he meets his true love.
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).
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 theater life, is absurdly endearing, like an Elizabethan Fozzy Bear.
Not surprisingly, Fiennes's 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.
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 hot-blooded romantic hero. Shakespeare did that a time or two himself.
Shakespeare In Love.
Directed by John Madden. With Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Simon Callow, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench and Joe Roberts. Rated R.Down in the Delta. Directed by Maya Angelou. With Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Mary Alice, Mpho Koaho and Wesley Snipes.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.