Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. image credit: Miramax

Movie Review: Shakespeare in Love (1998) ****

I last rewatched Shakespeare in Love almost exactly a year ago, so I wasn’t exactly overdue another review. But that was before I started doing movie reviews on Egregious. My last review is shorter, as tends to be preferred on Letterboxd.

A very clever movie, which unfortunately *knows* it is a very clever movie. In the days before Gwyneth Paltrow’s x-ray vagina eggs or whatever, she was just an adorable, horny, cross-dressing lil scamp trying to climb up on Ralph Fiennes’s hairier brother while popping off repurposed Shakespeare lines. There’s enough cross-dressing that they couldn’t make it wholly heterosexual, but they made a sincere effort. I can’t hate a movie that had *this* much fun being made, though I also cannot love it, despite the incredibly meta self-awareness of writing tragi-comedy like Shakespeare was a screenwriter in the 1990s.

“Great score and costumes.” -me and also The Oscars

(posted 3/23/23 on Letterboxd)

This was accompanied by a three-star rating. I don’t disagree with my original review so much, but I feel like I was generous in giving it three stars based on how I felt. My takeaway was negative in general. I found it way too “cute” last time. It was jarring to me, since I grew up loving the movie. For a ten-year-old literature nerd in 1998, Shakespeare in Love is fabulous. As an adult, I couldn’t get the same experience.

I was compelled to revisit it because Martin Clunes, star of the best show ever, plays a significant character. Coming at this from an I Love Martin Clunes angle had me looking closer at all the performances.

What a cast! Obviously we have Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes as the central relationship. The rest of the cast list is absurdly stacked: Our Savior Martin Clunes, Geoffrey Rush unrecognizable as the dude from Quills, Imelda Staunton, a deliciously villainous Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, and of course Dame Judi Dench as the Queen. Also, bafflingly but charmingly, J.Lo’s husband.

There are surely other noteworthy actors in the movie; it seems to be mostly cast with English actors and I’m not as familiar with non-Hollywood actors in general, hence my failure to recognize Martin Clunes as The Greatest until now.

On the performance level, I don’t see anything to criticize. Even Ben Affleck, who sticks out to say the least, is entirely appropriate for his character. I should have actually closed out my last review by saying “Great score, costumes, and cast.” The Oscars agreed with me on that too. Paltrow and Dench both took home statuettes.

Rory pointed out to me that the Oscars attention was not merit-based, but politics based, as major awards demand. Weinstein himself mounted an aggressive campaign. Yikes.

But Shakespeare in Love was primed to appeal to Hollywood anyway: Its anachronistic take on Shakespeare is extremely indulgent to the industry’s favorite things.

In much the way there’s always a dog in plays to appease the Queen, this movie panders hard. Shakespeare himself is the best example. His character is sent to therapy right at the beginning of the movie, which is the most 1990s-tortured-screenwriter act they could have done. You’re immediately, firmly placed in an anachronistic state of mind, which would have made all the characterizations more meaningful to Oscar voters at the time. Producers are selfish, screwing around, and must be wrangled. Writers are flighty and insecure. Actors are deeply, reverently committed to their art, and also totally unreliable ego-monsters.

For all my annoyance at the cutesy way-too-clever screenplay, that’s a lot of the reason it’s successful. It might rub my fur the wrong way now, but it’s excellent at what it seeks to accomplish. Part of that is awards-bait. Part of that is the fart-sniffing of Hollywood. But the most significant part, to me, is how it seeks to prove that all the mechanisms and tropes of Shakespeare’s era are rather timeless, because it tells you cynically what parts of a story will please audiences, and then…it executes those parts of the story to please audiences. Successfully!

Still, I don’t love it as I used to. The Queen connecting with Viola because they’re both struggling to survive in a man’s world falls as totally flat as Barbie’s shallow feminism 101, designed only to recognize the struggles of wealthy white women. Using Romeo and Juliet as an example of “true love” is silly and simply untrue. The play isn’t even about true love. It’s about a couple kids who impulsively fall into an intense relationship, and how their family’s grudges kill them. More of a warning than a love story or comedy. Plus, Shakespeare in Love tries very hard to avoid being gay, like all the No Homo Media of the 90s and 00s, which always sends me sinking down a dark hole remembering the homophobic abuse endured at the time.

I still think it’s better than I felt last year. Its sustained impact is mostly harmless, though the abusive shadow of Weinstein looms large over this and many films. Shakespeare in Love is just trying to have fun and entertain you. The costumes are really beautiful. The score is outstanding. The actors are all so good, and Martin Clunes is great (don’t @ me).

Also, I appreciate how a quick rewatch reminded me how much my mood at any given moment really impacts how generous I feel about a movie. Thanks, smug little Hollywood movie.

(image credit: Miramax)

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