Normally, I wouldn’t touch a film like this with a ten foot pole. I’m really not a fan of period films; I find them too pompous and restrictive. But with all the praise and Oscar buzz this film got, I had to give it a chance. Good thing, because this is a wonderful movie. Joseph Fiennes stars as none other than the legendary playwright and poet William Shakespeare, a man who aware of how brilliant he is but still a modest man with a true sense of decency and romance. I don’t know how accurate the film is, but for what we can see, the man was fascinating. He has an extraordinary talent with words (he’s always talking in metaphors), and he can write like no other. He’s currently working on a new play, a comedy entitled “Romeo & Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter”, but he’s not very inspired. Yet he’s gotta get rid of his writer’s block fast, because the patron of the theater (played caricaturally by Geoffrey Rush with tremendous energy) is being threatened by his usurers, and he wants the play to open in three weeks.
That’s when Viola comes in, and that’s when the movie catches on fire. The role is portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, in her best performance ever. I usually don’t really like Paltrow all that much ; in her previous part in A Perfect Murder for example, I found her cold and distant. But here, she’s radiant with passion, beauty and charm (and we get to see her perky boobies). She plays a young woman from the aristocracy who has a real passion for theater, but society relegates women to arranged marriages. Women are severely restricted from performing on stage, so female characters have to be played by men in drag. Viola turns the tables around by dressing herself as a man and so she auditions for Shakespeare’s play and gets the role of Romeo! Meanwhile, the playwright meets Viola and falls in love with her, and she becomes his muse, leading him to write the greatest love story of all time, “Romeo & Juliet”. But unfortunately, her parents and the Queen (Judi Dench, grandiose yet playful) set her to marry Lord Wussex, a jerk, yes, but one with nobility.
What’s highly interesting with the film is to see how “Romeo & Juliet” shaped up to the form we know, as elements of the Bard and Viola’s affair reoccur in his work. I love how director John Madden mixes art and reality he crafted brilliant sequences blending the play’s classic moments with what happens behind the scenes. The high point is the first presentation of “Romeo & Juliet”, which is not only great on its own but even more resonant since we know that Shakespeare and Viola are as infatuated with each other as their characters. Oh, and this is a more or less a comedy, but it ain’t that funny a film. Amusing, certainly. I laughed at some of the various misunderstandings and I enjoyed the satire of showbiz, which still rings true today as egos constantly grow bigger (Ben Affleck is real cool as the arrogant actor who plays Mercutio). I could have done without the slapstick and screwball comedy but hey, whatcha gonna do. This film is very entertaining, and it’s the most sophisticated and mature romance of the year.