1998

Film #383: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

On now to the second part of our Elizabethan double bill with the film that snatched the Best Picture award at the 1999 ceremony Shakespeare in Love. As well as its Best Picture win, the film nabbed six more Oscars included one for Dench’s role as Queen Elizabeth I. At the time some people, including myself, sniped at the win due to the fact her role was minimal but after seeing the likes of Beatrice Straight and Maureen Stapleton winning Best Supporting Actress I’ve definitely changed my tune.

Dench’s Elizabeth was definitely a scene-stealer and she portrayed the Queen as somebody who was frustrated by those who stood on ceremony. Dench dealt well with the comic nature of the screenplay and was convincing as the legendary virgin queen. The link between the two performances is the line in which Elizabeth talks about being a woman in a man’s profession, something she’s had to cope with since her reign began. Dench wasn’t the only actress to win an award for the film as Gwynth Paltrow triumphed, playing theatre-fan Viola De Lessops. Viola’s romance with Shakespeare during the rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet is the basis of the film which is odd seeing as she poses as a man for large portions of the movie. Gwyenth does put in a lively turn but does nothing to convince me that she should’ve beaten Blanchett at that year’s Oscar ceremony. Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes do double duty in this entry as they play theatre owner Henslowe and the titular playwright respectively. Fiennes is a perfectly serviceable leading man and shares fine chemistry with Paltrow which helps to make their on-screen romance convincing. Rush meanwhile is the perfect comic foil for the rest of the cast and his harassed Henslowe is the stand-out turn of a great supporting cast. One of my favourite performances in the film came from Tom Wilkinson as Hugh Fennyman, a loan shark who gets enraptured by the theatre after bankrolling Romeo and Juliet.

I don’t personally feel that there’s that much wrong with Shakespeare in Love and it’s not particularly offensive. Instead it just feels a little unremarkable and too whimsical to ever be taken seriously as a Best Picture contender. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s script is a little knowing and overly comic for a film that I feel should be a little bit more serious. That being said I did enjoy some of the little touches; most notably the fact that the rowers are presented like modern-day taxi drivers. I have to admit that I did enjoy the film’s final act as the performance of Romeo and Juliet itself was the highlight of the film. But it was the journey to the theatre that was the problem and I found plenty of the film’s characters uninteresting or unlikeable. Stoppard and Norman don’t appear to have put in a lot of work into making Colin Firth’s Wessex a serious enough threat to Viola and Shakespeare’s relationship. Even though she ultimately travels to America with him her heart will always be with the romantic playwright. I do feel it’s a little mean to constantly cast Firth as the cuckold as he played a similar third wheel as Kristin Scott Thomas’ husband in The English Patient.

So how did a lightweight comedy costume drama come to be the last film to win Best Picture in the twentieth century? Well that’s down to its involvement with Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax studios which are notorious for aggressively campaigning for their films to win awards. Weinstein’s campaign for Shakespeare in Love’s win including holding a party for director John Madden and inviting several of the academy’s key voters. He put millions of dollars into securing the film won in as many categories as possible and he was ultimately successful. However, after watching these two films back-to-back, it’s clear that Shakespeare in Love wasn’t even the best Elizabethan film to be released that year. It’s just a shame that politics and campaigning can get in the way of the right film winning the Best Picture and I feel that the 1999 ceremony exemplifies that point perfectly.

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