Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Madden
Stars: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Platrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Imelda Staunton, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Affleck, Martin Clunes, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Jim Carter, Joe Roberts, Rupert Everett, Antony Sher, Mark Williams.
This bawdy, slightly irreverent but delightfully entertaining romantic comedy offers us a fictional interpretation of the creation of Romeo And Juliet, one of literature’s greatest tragic love stories.
The film is set in the Elizabethan London of 1593. Up and coming young playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes, recently seen in Elizabeth) has been commissioned to write a play by sycophantic but debt ridden theatre owner Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, in a wonderful comic turn). It is hoped that this new play will put him on a par with arch rival, the famous playwright Christopher Marlowe (an uncredited Rupert Everett). But, even before he has put pen to paper for his farce Romeo And Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter, he is unfortunately struck by writer’s block.
Enter Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a role originally intended for Julia Roberts), the headstrong daughter of a noble family, who desperately wants to become an actress at a time when women were forbidden to pursue a career in the theatre. Although she is betrothed to the slimy Wessex (Colin Firth) in an arranged marriage, Shakespeare falls heavily in love with Viola. She becomes his muse, and soon the words are flowing from his quill. Their illicit romance provides the inspiration for the struggling playwright, and the drama of their affair is reflected in the developing play.
Some of the characters and incidental details may already be familiar to audiences who saw the lavish BBC tv mini-series starring Tim Curry as Shakespeare. Playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, etc) and co-writer Marc Norman suffuse their script with an air of irreverence, playfully mixing fact with fiction. The result is a briskly paced and enjoyable comedy about love, mistaken identities, duels, passion and death – the very stuff that became the essence of Shakespeare’s famous plays.
This wonderfully written film offers plenty of insights into the world of Elizabethan theatre without becoming didactic. British director John Madden (Mrs Brown) also gives it a slightly contemporary flavour with his treatment of the off stage dramas, the bruised egos, the rivalry between writers, and the scrambling for patronage and favour. His direction is crisp, and he makes the most of the sharp script and the poetic beauty of the dialogue.
The ensemble cast are all uniformly good, and their solid performances lift this delicious comedy. Golden Globe winner Paltrow is luminescent as Viola, and she delivers a wonderful performance in a quite challenging dual role. Fiennes only stepped into the role of Shakespeare after Daniel Day Lewis passed, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else bringing such passion, wit and smouldering intensity to the part. He is superb, and if he keeps getting good roles in quality films like this, the younger Fiennes will possibly eclipse his more famous but over rated brother Ralph.
Tom Wilkinson brings his usual touch of class to his role as Fennyman, the money lender who eventually sponsors the creation of Romeo And Juliet. Judi Dench lends her commanding presence to the role of Queen Elizabeth. Imelda Staunton is marvellous as Viola’s sympathetic and understanding nurse.
This handsomely mounted production beautifully brings to life the Elizabethan setting. The costumes and the set design evoke the marked contrasts between Viola’s world of pomp and privilege and the destitute, grimy world of London’s growing theatre community. Stephen Warbeck’s gorgeous music score and Richard Greatrex’s luscious cinematography further enhance the classy production.