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The film finds young Will (Fiennes), an actor and wanna-be playwright, in deep shit. He's accepted an advance for a comedy titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, but he lacks the inspiration to write so much as a line. Then, he espies Viola De Lesseps (Paltrow), the beauteous daughter of a wealthy merchant, and his pen takes flight. (In lieu of any signs of writerly intelligence in this Will, we are given many close-ups of his ink-stained fingers.) Viola is mad about the theater, and, despite the fact that women were not allowed to tread the boards of the Elizabethan stage, she auditions (in drag) for the part of Romeo in the still nonexistent play. Captivated by her talent, Will follows her home and discovers her true identity. (Her perky breasts are most convincing.) Soon they're fucking and the iambic pentameter is flowing back and forth between them.
One of the film's genuinely witty observations has to do with Shakespeare's ability to capitalize on other people's ideas. Thus, Christopher Marlowe, London's reigning playwright, gives Will the premise for Romeo and Juliet, and Viola, her tongue loosened by the loss of her virginity, offers up the raw material for the verse.
There is, however, no wit in having Will write the play as an idealized reflection of his and Viola's forbidden affair. It's as if Will, having discovered that Viola's father won't let her out of the house, languishes alone in Moomba all night writing the potion scene. Which, I'm sure, is exactly the kind of self-aggrandizing image that director John Madden and his gaggle of Miramax overseers (Harvey Weinstein has claimed that this is his Academy Award picture) want to suggest to their target audience. You too can be Shakespeare (or Shakespeare's muse) if you heedlessly hurl yourself into a love affair that can't possibly last more than three weeks and maintain your cynicism about it at the same time.
Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Will and Viola would never give up their ambitions, let alone their lives, for love. Will caddishly forgets to tell Viola that he has a wife and kids squirreled away in Stratford. And as for Viola, she offers remarkably little resistance to being married off to a bore with a title. These are not altogether admirable characters. Which would be pretty interesting if the film didn't work at cross-purposes to try to convince us that they are pure magic.
Thus, Paltrow, who once upon a time (in Seven and Flesh and Bone) seemed such a promising actor, plays every scene as if she's sprinkling fairy dust on her own head. Paltrow has a nice voice but, with no technique for shaping a line of verse, not to mention a character, she relies mostly on heavy breathing to rev up her own feelings. Still, it's impossible not to feel pity for her. With Shakespeare in Love opening just weeks after Elizabeth, she's in the unenviable position of arriving late at the party and discovering that she's wearing the same dress and hairdo as the new girl of the year. Cate Blanchett, who's so extraordinary as Elizabeth, has an advantage in that she was given a richer script to work with. But she also has a daring that Paltrow lacks. Blanchett is more intent in revealing a character, however abrasive that character can be, than in charming an audience.
Fiennes is not much better here than Paltrow. He has technique, but not much going on underneath. Maybe it's that he doesn't have the kind of features that the camera takes seriously. With his pouty mouth, cupid nose, and the eyes of a spaniel on speed, Fiennes is more calendar boy than leading man. In Elizabeth, his shallowness suited the dynamic of the film. Elizabeth could eat her Lord Dudley for breakfast, and, metaphorically speaking, that's just what she did.
With the exception of Judi Dench, whose no-nonsense Queen Elizabeth is an implicit put-down of the youngsters' hyperactivity, most of the supporting cast is as undistinguished as the two leads. Playing Ned Alleyn, the most celebrated actor of his time, Ben Affleck glows as if his skin has just been put through an aluminum-oxide vacuum treatment at Bliss and his hair looks as if it is manicured daily, strand by strand. Affleck doesn't have much to do except hang around looking fatuous and belligerent, but he's very funny doing just thatas long as he keeps his mouth shut.
The script of Shakespeare in Love was written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, and you can bet that Stoppard is responsible for the clever Elizabethan in-jokes that let anyone who took one of those Shakespeare-and-his-world courses feel really smart. Among the best conceits is portraying the Jacobean playwright John Webster (author of such bloodbaths as The Duchess of Malfi) as a homeless 13-year-old who hangs around the theater because he loves the violence. Showing his talent for revenge at an early age, Webster gets back at Will for not casting him as Juliet by disclosing the truth about Viola's sex. "I saw her boobies," he yells. So did we all, dear, so did we all.
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