Saturday, June 13, 2015

John Madden | Shakespeare in Love

an historical-romantic, tragi-comical, post-modern, sentimental mystery
by Douglas Messerli

Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (writers, based on a script by Marc Norman), John Madden (director) Shakespeare in Love / 1998


If Polonius were alive today—and he is by many other names—he might well describe Marc Norman’s and Tom Stoppard’s script in the manner with which I’ve titled this piece, for director John Madden seems, in his very busy narrative, to have wanted to include everything one could in one work about the young Will Shakespeare and his times. 
     Unable to write and, apparently, sexually unfulfilled, the young, lonely Will (Joseph Fiennes) in London is having a difficult time of it, shifting between acting and writing, while having to appease the theater owners commitments and the actors’—particularly in the instance of Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes)—vanity. Promises are made and broken, producers are tortured for non-payment, and behind-the-curtain deals are made, while the government, in the form of The Master of the Revels, Edward Tilney (Simon Callow) threatens to close down all theaters. 
     Although he has a vague idea for a comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, Shakespeare can find no words to express it. Fortunately, his friendly-rival, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (Rupert Everett), suggests that he make it an Italian story, with a love interest of a young girl from a warring family with a brother named Mercutio. His pirate story, in short, has begun to shape up into what we now know as Romeo and Juliet—if only he had a young Romeo or Juliet to inspire him to write:

      Shakespeare finds both in the daughter of a wealthy businessman, Viola de Lesseps (Gwenyth Paltrow), who comes to him dressed as a male, Thomas Kent, hoping to play the lead. Smitten with theater and with Shakespeare’s writing, Viola cannot appear on stage as a woman, so must win over the playwright as a man, which she immediately does with her convincing acting. Yet at the very moment of charming him, after he demands that she remove her hat that hides her golden curls, she rushes off, with the charmed Shakespeare on the chase.

      Their run leads to the home of Lord and Lady de Lesseps, who are about to marry off their daughter to the crude and money hungry, yet royally-connected Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). In search of the young actor Kent, Shakespeare interlopes upon the party, in a dance coming face to face with the beautiful Viola, thunderously falling into love. Threated by the jealous Wessex, the playwright gives is name as Kit Marlowe, thus unintentionally threatening the other’s life, which later becomes a major element of the plot when Marlowe is killed in a bar, with the young Will believing he was the cause.
     Indeed by the time the story has gone this far, there are so many avenues down which the authors’ take the plot that it’s hard to know how to untie their knotted entwinements. It hardly matters that at moments their story is filled with sophomoric humor that one might encounter in Airplane! or any number of bad-boy bromances (at one moment, for example, Shakespeare is seen drinking from a cup inscribed with the words “Souvenir of Stratford-Upon-Avon), while at other moments the film presents itself as a witty commentary on Shakespeare’s time; the central story follows much of the plot of Romeo and Juliet without the Capulets (although there are plenty of sword fights), interweaving the fictional affair offstage of Will and Viola with the onstage tragic love tale of Shakespeare’s lovers. The next generation’s popular playwright, John Webster, makes a cameo as a nasty boy actor (Joe Roberts), while the highly esteemed actor Burbage finally comes round to help out Shakespeare by allowing him to use his theater.

      Married off to Wessex, Viola nonetheless escapes to watch the play, in which, when news spreads that the male-Juliet is ill, she suddenly discovers herself again acting, this time playing out on stage what the couple has been exploring in the wings. Even Queen Elizabeth (in the form of the magisterial acting of Judi Dench) enters the scene to save the day and award Shakespeare the money from an earlier wager that theater can somehow be true to life.

      If the film seems to be a grand pastiche, it would appear that the authors’ have gotten their point across. For the charm of this work is that, despite its declarations for realist theater, it is a post-modern mish-mash that works against most realist conventions, tossing numerous anachronisms, illogical plot developments, snippets of lines from other Shakespeare and Elizabethan dramas, ridiculous skits with dogs, and the shit and slops of the London streets all into the same pot. That it all somehow works, coming together to provide its audience with an truly wry lark, as theater producer Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) keeps insisting, is a mystery.

Los Angeles, June 13, 2015

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