Wikipedia lists about 420 full-feature TV shows and films capturing the plays and life of Shakespeare, making him one of the most-filmed author of all time. So why is Shakespeare so important? And why do filmmakers feel compelled to adapt Shakespeare’s plays for the screen? The answer lies in Shakespeare’s brilliance in storytelling, and through his plays he was able to express human emotions eloquently in a prose like no one else; some of his passages have become very popular in English literature and are continually referenced by historians and students. In addition, Shakespeare had perfect command of the English language, and that enabled him to write stories of every kind: comedy, drama, history, and tragedy, and even mixes of different types of genres for a story. Being a multifaceted writer, he also concentrated on sketching out every component of his characters. This made Shakespearean characters compelling, complex, and often memorable, and some of his most-memorable characters are set in the midst of a tragedy. Going back to screen adaptations of Shakespeare plays, we have a wide range of films that are faithful to the Shakespearean world. The movie in question, “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), however, takes a different route, and instead of presenting a filmic adaption of a Shakespeare’s play, it presents a fictional take on Shakespeare’s life that revolves around his famous play “Romeo & Juliet.”
Joseph Fiennes plays the lead character of William Shakespeare, who is suffering from writer’s block in finishing his new play “Romeo & Juliet.” Even though he is unable to finish the play, Shakespeare starts an audition for Romeo. Soon after, a young man named Thomas Kent signs for the role and impresses Shakespeare with his performance and knowledge of his past plays. But Thomas Kent is actually a female, Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), disguised as a man so that she can act in a play (in Shakespeare’s England, women were not allowed on the stage). Shakespeare finds out about this, he is instantly attracted to Viola, and they begin a passionate affair, even when their affair is doomed from the beginning. The affair, however, helps Shakespeare to complete his play and be ready for the performance. Along the way, it is revealed that Viola will be married soon to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), and Shakespeare is separated from his wife by a long distance. As the plot unfolds, Wessex is challenged to bet that a recent Shakespeare play cannot capture the true essence of love. The Queen, played by Judi Dench, agrees to witness the wager. But things get worse for Shakespeare as the Queen’s official in charge of London’s theaters finds out that a woman is playing a part in the play. He orders the theater to be shut down, but Shakespeare is soon rescued by a rival theater owner who offers to show the play to the audience. Thanks to Shakespeare’s dialogue and fine stage performances, “Romeo & Juliet” becomes a smashing success with the locals.
“Shakespeare in Love” works well because it presents Shakespeare’s life and his work in a digestible and entertaining form. Understanding a Shakespeare play can be a daunting task, since it is heavy on literary specifics of the English language, and also Shakespeare’s English imitated how people spoke at that time. The language in the film is simple and easy to understand, and it is in the play’s performance that we actually hear the trademark Shakespearean English. On the production front, considering the enormous size and complexity of the project, the filmmakers have successfully recreated the medieval English period, which adds to the entertainment value. The costumes look realistic, the set design simply marvelous, and there are times when one is completely mesmerized by the costumes and the filmmakers ‘ability to represent the period detail to perfection.
Being an ensemble cast, the performances make the film a worthwhile experience. First, the pairing of Fiennes and Paltrow is perfect, and they believably depict the loving side of their characters; the pair’s on-screen chemistry is magnetic, brimming with the accurate emotions of a couple in true love. Paltrow is magnificent in her role, as she is able to portray her character through several emotional highs and lows. Even though at times he comes across rather dry in his performance, Fiennes still manages to convincingly fit the role of Shakespeare. As a dramatist, Shakespeare’s character is almost lyrical in the way the movie overlaps Shakespeare’s play on paper with his real-life love on the screen. Indeed, “Romeo & Juliet” feels like an emotional cry from an ailing heart, and it is as if Shakespeare knew how his love would end. The supporting cast comprising of Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck, and Judi Dench have sequences where they leave equally entertaining impressions, and in the end, they are as equally competent as the leads. And finally, we have Judi Dench’s six-minute performance that won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
In the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, “Shakespeare in Love” captured a total of seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. The film demonstrates that to be a winner in the Best Picture category, the story line need not be an artsy or slow-burning affair. John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love” is a perfect example of ingenious filmmaking techniques, nicely blending comedy, drama, and melodrama in the right proportions. The film consists of an incredible cast, fantastic performances, opulent sets, smooth cinematography, and high production values. Produced with a small budget of $25 million, the film managed exceptional returns at the box office, totaling $300 million worldwide. Indeed, “Shakespeare in Love” is a memorable motion picture that is enthralling and enjoyable.
“Shakespeare in Love” arrives on Blu-ray through Lionsgate in a stunning-looking 1080p transfer that is encoded utilizing an AVC codec and framed in an aspect ratio of 2:34.1. The first thing that is evident about this transfer is its superb consistency in detail and sharpness. The detail, as expected, is remarkable for both the nearby and distant objects. The transfer never appears soft, and its sharpness never fluctuates from scene to scene. The costumes sparkle with astounding detail and deep colors, hues that remain bold and lively throughout. The print appears fine, with no trace of blemishes marring the transfer. Light grain is present, making this a film-like transfer. Finally, the flesh tones are realistic and never appear blown out.
Lionsgate has included a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Being a dialogue-driven drama, the front channels are active. The dialogue is crystal clear and audible for the entire duration. The theater performances have lively a sound design, triggering the rear channels and providing an immersive experience.
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray release of the film ports over all the extras from the previous release.
First, we get two commentary tracks. The first commentary is with director John Madden, who talks about the script and how the plot recreates the Shakespearean world. He discusses the sets, cast, and characters. The second commentary features many participants including the production designer, producer, and cast. The participants provide technical details on the film, its sets, and its grand designs. Even with the inclusion of many participants, this is a nicely done track.
Next, we get the featurette “Shakespeare in Love,” a regular making-of affair, but nonetheless fun to look at. Here director Madden talks about the challenges involved in creating the period detail. He talks about the works of Shakespeare that have been adapted for movies. The screenwriters also describe their moments when working on the film’s script.
Up next, “Academy Award Winning Costumes” is a brief profile on the film’s costume designer, Sandy Powell. Following this, there are deleted scenes with Paltrow and Fiennes. And, finally, there is a theatrical trailer, along with TV spots.
I enjoyed “Shakespeare in Love” a lot in my second viewing. It’s a perfect motion picture, featuring memorable characters performed by charismatic leads, packing the right emotions in the form of comedy and drama. The story has characteristics of a roller-coaster ride, and yet it maintains a consistently entertaining tone and warm mood throughout. The Blu-ray edition offers a definite upgrade over the previous DVD release.