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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

Shakespeare in Love (review)

Love, and a Bit with a Dog

“Love and a bit with a dog,” that’s all audiences want, according to Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), owner of London’s Rose Theater. A bit of romance, a bit of comedy — isn’t that really all that movie audiences, too, are after? Shakespeare in Love has both in spades, and it’s the first film of its kind to win Best Picture since 1977’s Annie Hall.

In fair London, where we lay our scene, beautiful and rich Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) dreams only of the theater in a time when women are forbidden to take the stage. But “I will have poetry in my life,” Viola insists, “and adventure, and love, love, love above all.” So, disguised as a boy, she auditions for a new play by Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), “a writer of plays that capture my heart,” swoons Viola. She becomes his muse, inspiring perhaps the greatest of his plays, Romeo and Juliet — Will and Viola even have their own balcony scene, though a decidedly more comic one that the play’s lovers get.
The film’s humor ranges from the wonderfully intellectual to snarky movie and theater in-jokes, from sight gags to rapid-fire, reference-laden dialogue. In the background in Will’s house is a souvenir mug from Stratford on Avon; Will visits a sixteenth-century shrink who times his sessions with an hourglass. Henslowe owes Will money for his last play, One Gentleman of Verona (perhaps it’s the sequel, Two Gentlemen of Verona, that has come down to us). Will and Henslowe sit through painfully inept auditions; roles go to people Henslowe owes money to, no matter how dreadful they are. Actors are arrogant and writers get no respect — when someone at a rehearsal asks who Will is, Henslowe replies, “Nobody — he’s the author.”

If there’s any serious theme to be found in Shakespeare in Love, it’s one similar to 1998’s Titanic: the idea that love can inspire, even when it’s lost, that it’s possible to go on and make the experience mean something in your life.

But it’s not necessary to search for deeper meanings. Like love itself, this is a film that should be enjoyed and savored, not analyzed and picked over. It’s romantic, and it’s uproariously funny (it even has a bit with a dog). Full of life and joy, Shakespeare in Love is a delightful romp of the highest order.

Best Picture 1998
unforgettable movie moment:
Henslowe explains how a play in production is invariably a disaster heading for utter ruin, but somehow it all works out in the end. How? Henslowe shakes his head. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

previous review:
“Fan Fiction,” 12.21.98

previous Best Picture:
1997: Titanic
next Best Picture:
1999: American Beauty


MPAA: rated R for sexuality

viewed at home on a small screen

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