Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: Shakespeare in Love (1999)

I never had any intention of watching this movie. Never. I had heard that it was not a true story to Shakespeare's life, so why would I bother watching it? Plus, I heard about some content issues with this movie (and, believe me, there are a lot). But, for my Introduction to Shakespeare class, we watched it (though I'm still puzzled why we watched it in the first place since it's not a true story), so I figured I'd review it for Elegance of Fashion, even for a simple warning than anything else. So, right off the bat, I want to say this is not a movie for families. There are a lot of mature scenes (some graphic). And, honestly, you're not missing much by choosing not to watch this movie. But, here we go on with the review...

DVD Box Art
Will Shakespeare is struggling with writer's block while trying to write a comedy called "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" for his struggling acting company. When he rewrites the play as a tragedy and calls it "Romeo and Juliet", he holds auditions for the part of Romeo and casts a boy named Thomas Kent for the role since he really understands the part of Romeo. However, Thomas turns out to be Viola De Lesseps, a young woman who is engaged to Lord Wessex through a business deal with her parents, but still wants to act in secret. Will meets Viola at a party one evening (not knowing that she is Thomas Kent) and falls in love with her, while she, in turn as Thomas, pretends to be her cousin to deliver messages back and forth from Will to herself. Soon, Will discovers Thomas Kent's true identity and the two fall in love.

There are quite a few actors and actresses in Shakespeare in Love that you might find in other period dramas:
Actor/ActressCharacterAlso Seen In
Geoffrey RushPhillip HensloweThe King's Speech as Lionel Logue
Tom WilkinsonHugh FennymanSense and Sensibility (1995) as Henry Dashwood
Judi DenchQueen Elizabeth ICranford and Return to Cranford as Miss Matty Jenkyns
Gwyneth PaltrowViola De LessepsEmma (1996) as Emma Woodhouse
Imelda StauntonNurseSense and Sensibility (1995) as Mrs. Palmer, Cranford as Miss Pole
Colin FirthLord WessexPride and Prejudice (1995) as Mr. Darcy
Jim CarterRalph BashfordDownton Abbey as Mr. Charles Carson

Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps as Thomas Kent
(confusing enough for you?)
Now, I don't claim to be an expert about the life of William Shakespeare; I know a couple of facts here and there and really have read only a couple of his plays. But even as I watched this movie, I could tell that a great deal of it must be invention (if I may insert a Jane Austen quote here) because a lot of it was so unbelievable and unrealistic. For instance, I doubt that a woman could have gotten away with pretending to be a male actor for very long (especially when she and Will would take every opportunity of kissing during rehearsals; honestly, were the other actors shocked when they found out she was a woman?), and then during the opening of Romeo and Juliet actually be dressed as a woman (and be very obviously a woman) to have Queen Elizabeth say that she was a man and everyone accept it? And then to have no record of it? I highly doubt it.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola and Joseph Fiennes as
Will Shakespeare
I really didn't like the way that William Shakespeare was portrayed in this movie. First of all, it seemed like they were trying to make him some sort of 16th century heartthrob by having him called "Will Shakespeare". If I didn't know that Pirates of the Caribbean  was made later than this movie, I would have guessed they were trying to follow PotC's character Will Turner and apply him to William Shakespeare to make him sound cool or something. But besides that, I couldn't take his character seriously at all (for reasons other than him writing a play called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter). Besides pursuing the highly improbable relationship with Viola (which you know is doomed from the start since he is already married), he was horribly roguish and just unlikable; you would wonder why Viola was interested in him at all.

Viola I couldn't really care much for. I found her overly romantic and focused too much on her emotions instead of what she should have been doing. Really, if you examine her moral character, she knows that she is doing wrong (especially after she finds out that Will is actually married), yet she continues on with him. Probably her only good quality is that she was pretty (but I'll discuss this more later), but her personality was severely lacking: either she was too naive and plunged head-first into her relationship with Will or she ignored all the morality she was (presumably) taught and did what she wanted anyway.

Jim Carter as Ralph Bashford (left)
While watching Shakespeare in Love, you get a sense of what Shakespearean theater was like (or possibly like; maybe that why my professor had us watch this movie? But there must have been better ways...). A rivalry between two theater companies is featured as part of the story line and we also got to see a little bit of behind the scenes with theater production. Of the actors, the one that I recognized quickly was Jim Carter, who is well-known as Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey as well as some other period dramas. I know that Shakespearean England had only male actors, but was it really such a smart idea to cast Jim Carter's actor as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet? His voice is so deep that I could not take his nurse seriously. I don't think any acting company would have made such a choice for a play as serious as Romeo and Juliet. A comedy, maybe, but not a tragedy.

Viola De Lesseps at a dance
The story of Shakespeare in Love takes place (as appears on the screen at the beginning) in 1593 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but from what I've read, you can't take the year too seriously since there are some historical anachronisms throughout the entire movie, but I guess it sets up the time period for the audience.

The scenery is very nice in Shakespeare in Love. While there are a number of lovely scenes around Viola's home that exhibit lots of color and greenery, there are some scenes in the city around the playhouses that are more gritty and not as nice. The theater that Shakespeare works in (I'm assuming that it's the Globe Theater?) is explored in detail so you can see the ins-and-outs of the theater whether it be behind the scenes or in the audience.


I cannot claim to be an expert on Elizabethan fashion, but I didn't see anything in the costuming of Shakespeare in Love that screamed inaccurate. No, as far as I could tell, everything looked okay... from appearances.

Colin Firth (left) as Lord Wessex
There was a wide range of men's costuming. The actors/poor characters wore mostly poor or messy clothes since their income did not allow for much of a wardrobe, while rich character, like Lord Wessex, had fancier clothes (though Lord Wessex had an earring in one ear? Is that accurate to the time period?). Will was dressed in what appeared to be fairly okay clothes, but the filmmakers seemed to purposely make him messy, walking around without his jacket buttons fastened, which isn't how I pictured William Shakespeare at all (but maybe it's the heartthrob image they were going for?).

But besides that, the ladies costuming was very lovely for the most part. If there wasn't anything else good in Viola's character, at least I could say that she did look very nice indeed! She had a large amount of nice dresses, but I wasn't too sure about her hair; often, Viola's hair was left down when my understanding of most historical eras is that women put their hair up. If anyone has any information on this, feel free to leave a comment. But for her hair, I found it hard to believe that she managed to put all that hair under the wig that she was wearing as Thomas Kent; maybe if it was a wig that had more volume in it, maybe, but not like the one that she was wearing.
Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I.

The person I thought was the worst dressed in the entire movie was Queen Elizabeth. I like Judi Dench, I really do, but she just looked awful in this movie. Her hair didn't look right at all: it looked like it was a bad wig placed on a head that was completely bald (I know the portraits of Queen Elizabeth show her with a wide forehead, but this just didn't look right at all). Her make-up was done in such as way that could not flatter her at all and plus her clothes were too much.

Overall: 1/5
I'm not quite sure why everyone made such a big deal out of this movie. I know it got awards... but why? Surely there were better movies out in 1999? While the costuming and scenery were nice in Shakespeare in Love, the rest of the movie isn't good (though I've joked that I only watched this movie because of Colin Firth). The entire movie was pretty much an attempt at a biopic that was all fictional. Maybe if the movie was about fictional characters, it wouldn't have been as bad on that front, but why would you make a movie about a real historical figure and make it completely fiction? My other issue with this movie (and probably the biggest issue I have with this movie) is the content. There were a lot of mature scenes that were unnecessary and even a bit graphic. And some of the time, you couldn't even see the bad scenes coming: it'll be an okay scene, okay scene, and then you're blindsided by an unnecessary bad scene. Save yourself the time and skip this movie. Look at the screenshots of costumes and scenery, but that's about it. The rest of it was badly done, indeed! (Another shameless Jane Austen reference)

Shakespeare in Love is available on DVD and Blu-ray. It is rated R (and appropriately so) and runs for 123 minutes.


  1. The theater you saw isn't the Globe, since that wasn't built until 1599, and Romeo and Juliet was first performed a few years before that.

    "Will" has long be a common nickname for people named William, so I don't think they call him that here just to make him seem sexier. I'd forgotten they call him that in this movie, but it reminds me of a marvelous book called Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by preeminent historian Stephen Greenblatt. A weighty tome, to be sure, but if you ever want to read a really great exploration of all the factors that shaped Shakespeare's works, that's the book for you.

    I'm guessing this was required viewing for your class because it does show how things work behind the scenes in the theater world of that day, and I can't think of any other movie that does so as thoroughly.

    I'd guess that they dressed Shakespeare messily because he's supposed to be more concerned with writing poems and trying to stay financially afloat than when how he looked. Going for that "distracted writer" look, hee.

    Queen Elizabeth very likely was bald -- lice and fleas where a terrible problem in those days, and most wealthy people cropped or shaved their hair and then wore wigs. Lots easier to delouse a wig than your own hair. And her makeup is supposed to be all white and fakey -- by the late 1590s, she would have been in her 60s, but thanks to having smallpox when she was in her 30s, she had a terrible complexion (and may have lost much of her hair as a result, another reason for wigs!) and wore a lot of heavy makeup to provide her subjects (and herself?) with the illusion that she was still beautiful, still young and vital and worthy of the almost cultish devotion she seems to have inspired.

    But I completely agree with you that this movie didn't need nudity, didn't need an adulterous love affair at all (though probably couldn't call it by the same title then), could have been a great look at how Shakespeare's plays got written and produced without all that. Silly Hollywood.

    Okay, I'll shut up now! :-)

  2. I heard from someone that this was a great historical drama, but I've always been wary of it because I knew about the mature least it seems as though it is more inaccurate than I had been led to believe! I can't stand it when historical movies about soneone's life are more than a little inaccurate (like Becoming Austen)!

    I will say, however, that the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth was probably quite accurate. As the previous commenter mentioned, she probably was bald...and she wore incredibly heavy makeup to give the impression of youth. In reality...the makeup had mercury as a base, and actually had a graying effect on the skin (and a negative effect on the body and mind as a whole) which made it so that the wearer had to paint it even more heavily on her face. And Elizabeth's clothes were notoriously her costumes probably weren't too far off.

    Decked Out in Ruffles

  3. Please chill out, this was a masterful frolic of imagination and play with words, the master's words, that even he might well appreciate! I saw this for what it was, a simple joy. I am a wordsmith and here they were, each and every word in full play.


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