March 8th, 2000

Shakespeare In Love

What a mixture. Hollywood’s freshest starlet and a prestigious British cast. Swashbuckling action and erudite dialogue from the theatre’s finest ironist. Biography and fantasy, bawdy comedy and tragi-romance set against an impressive period reconstruction of London in the Elizabethan era. So why does Shakespeare In Love fall as flat as one of the crappy puns of which The Bard himself was so fond?

Well, there’s Gwyneth Paltrow for a start. She simpers and gulps throughout the film like some doe-eyed giraffe in a Disney cartoon. She recites her portions of Shakespearian dialogue as if savouring a chocolate dessert, cooing and gushing rather than conveying any dramatic tension or impetus. The strong suspicion engendered here that she’s a featherheaded, vapid streak of anaemic drivel was subsequently confirmed by her hugely embarrassing, bucket-fillingly lachrymose Oscar winning speech.

We are told by the film’s producers that there is tremendous “chemistry” between Paltry and Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare. Well, there’s certainly physics – there’s inordinate amount of fastforwardable snog and fucktime between them onscreen. Even so, there’s no Bunsen Burner in this relationship. Shakespeare is unknowable to us, which is the reason this film should probably never have been made but Fiennes is incapable of conveying any sense of interior life on screen. His eyes are glassy and permanently half-popped out of his skull in what is supposed to pass for an expression of romantic intensity. Photogenic but glossily one-dimensional, he looks like he’s been peeled from a GQ Armani ad. He might as well be some jobbing handsome actor playing the straight foil to Les Dawson in some Hamlet skit.

It speaks volumes that Colin Firth, the hissable anti-romantic Lord Wessex actually registers more humanity than Fiennes. But then, of course, there is the sparkling and fleetly erudite “comedy” of co-scriptwriter Tom Stoppard. Comedy? Don’t make me laugh. We’re talking bad, bad, past-their-Peak half-arsed Pythonisms related in that slightly nasal, E.L. Wisty voice which men of a certain generation still believe to render automatically amusing anything they say. “Romeo And Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter?” These aren’t the Seventies, folks, try harder.

If Tom Stoppard had had more of a hand in the architecture of this film it might just have amounted to something but as it was, he was merely flown in to sprinkle the movie with some of his “classy” Stoppardisms. “I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat once”. If this had been Terry Scott in a Carry On film mouthing this lame, lame gag, we’d have called for the chuckle vet to have it humanely destroyed. However, this is Tom Stoppard, you understand, of the legitimate theatre – so cue gales of sycophantic laughter.

The tiresome cross-dressing scenes here make you glad of the leaps and strides made in comedy since the Elizabethan age, too. There’s even a character who stammers. Gee, no one’s ever thought of using a stammerer for cheap laughs before.

Shakespeare In Love is ultimately an alienating experience because it tries to be at once both romantic and ironic and ends up vacillating between blustery, balcony scene effusiveness or fartily deflating, puncturing mirth. When Shakespeare talks of Aphrodite, his muse, cue minor player in Dudley Moore-style voice. “Oh, Aphrodite Baggot who does it behind the Dog & Trumpet?” And so it goes, feebly, throughout the movie. None of this stopped critics and punters alike from being determined to worship Shakespeare In Love, perhaps out of some sort of misplaced patriotism. At least Judy Dench had the decency to be embarrassed when they shoved an Oscar in her arms for what was another day at the office for her, swapping her “Mrs Brown” Victorian black for Elizabethan white. Truth was, the Yanks loved this half-baked, self-satisfied, self-defeating uncharismatic, ill-thatched exercise in English Heritage because they think we’re quaint and the Brits loved it because they’re too dumb to tell the difference between Shakespeare, shit and Shinola.

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