4 Stars Movies

Go behind the scenes of “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” in Shakespeare in Love

This blogger is not ashamed to admit being in love with Shakespeare in Love, and not just for the generous displays of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lovely young bubbies.

Full of American actors affecting English accents with varying degrees of outrageousness, it only partly qualifies as Europudding, and is in fact more in the vein of “let’s put on a show!” theater farces like Noises Off and Waiting for Guffman. Director John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love succeeds beautifully, but the formula is not ironclad; Becoming Jane obviously attempted the same stunt by warping the biographical details of Jane Austin’s life onto her novels, but rather failed to capture her dry wit and particular brand of practical passion.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love
Oi, get yer bubbies out!

Co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, already an expert at playing fast and loose with Shakespeare in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, lays more than a few easter eggs for English majors and other enthusiasts of Elizabethan drama. Bloody playwright John Webster cameos as a disturbed young lad. Many favorite Shakespeare cliches appear not just in the play-within-the-movie, but also in the body of the movie itself: ghosts, cross-cross-dressing, and a “bit with a dog.” But perhaps the movie’s biggest achievement is to humanize perhaps the most revered writer in the English language, and yet still illuminate the unmatched passion and achievement of his work. A Shakespeare beset with writer’s block struggles to find a hook for the unwritten Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter reminds us that he was probably no unearthly creature taking dictation from beyond, and that creating such art was, simply, hard work.

Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench in full Queen Bitch mode

Shakespeare in Love thankfully doesn’t let historical accuracy get in the way of a good gag. Will makes weekly visits to an apothecary practicing psychotherapy a few hundred years early. The contemporary theater world is shown more than once as a precursor to today’s movie biz. In order to bankroll the production of a new play, financier/kneecapper Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) suggests Globe Theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) pay actors with a portion of the profits, when of course there never are any. Brilliant! One wonders if Miramax honchos Harvey & Bob Weinstein perceived the irony.

But the movie is sometimes more accurate than one might think for something that is admittedly a slightly fluffy farce. For example, it is in fact plausible for Shakespeare to fear he may have been indirectly responsible for rival playwright Christopher Marlowe’s death. Marlowe died in 1593, which according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, was about the time Romeo and Juliet was written.

2 Stars Movies

All the world’s a stage in Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It

I’ve been a Kenneth Branagh fan ever since seeing the joyous trifle Much Ado About Nothing on a date with my first girlfriend in high school. Probably to my date’s dismay, it was also the moment I fell passionately in love with Emma Thompson. Later, I enjoyed his down and dirty Henry V, the Hitchcockian noir Dead Again, the over-the-top-and-beyond bombast of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and even met another future date at Hamlet. But As You Like It is decidedly lacking in Branagh’s proven flair for translating theatre to the medium of cinema. In the US at least, it was originally intended for theatrical release through Picturehouse, but went straight to HBO.

Having never read the play nor seen it performed, I’ll cop to having done a little cramming on Wikipedia, the 21st Century answer to Cliff’s Notes. Branagh has relocated the action from a French duchy to an enclave of expatriate Europeans in 19th century Japan, but to what advantage? There is little sense of a European community abroad in an alien land; in fact very few Asian actors appear at all, even in the background. A silently-staged ninja attack is a promising opening, but ultimately disappointing to arthouse audiences with highbrow wire-fu expectations raised after Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Romola Garai in As You Like It
Rosalind & Celia’s pretty frocks

Obviously a low-budget film, As You Like It suffers in ways that similarly-priced movies made virtue. Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors, for example, made the cheap sets part of the fun, and beat Branagh by a few years to the device of an epilogue featuring an ensemble cast breaking the fourth wall by literally walking off-set and behind the camera.

Other miscellaneous disappointments:

  • There’s an over-reliance on long, clumsy steadycam takes, especially one fumbled shot in which Kevin Kline’s face is obscured throughout most of his delivery of the play’s most famous monologue: “All the world’s a stage…”
  • With a private English garden standing in for the forests of Japan, the overcast weather mutes the color palette. The most vibrant colors are the occasional blossoming tree and the pretty frocks worn by Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Celia (Romola Garai).
  • Brian Blessed (a regular in Branagh’s company) doesn’t do nearly enough of his trademark shouting. Perhaps he was afraid to rupture the delicate Howard’s eardrums.
  • The omnipresent score is really, really bad.
  • And finally, As You Like It sports what must be the cheapest fake lion in cinema history; it was probably possible to stage something more convincing on the stage in Shakespeare’s day.
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