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Blu-ray Review: Shakespeare in Love

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Originally released in 1998, Shakespeare in Love took home seven Academy Awards including ones for picture, actress, and supporting actress.  Beyond that, it was nominated for another six Oscars which it didn’t win.  Certainly the movie is entirely enjoyable and thoroughly entertaining, but watching it today, the John Madden directed film doesn’t have the feeling of a “great” motion picture.  Great fun, yes; great, no.

Shakespeare in Love stars Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare, a lovesick playwright looking for his muse, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps, a woman in love with the theatre, but not with the man to whom she is being forced to marry (Lord Wessex, played by Colin Firth).  It is a period romantic comedy which, as much as being interested in telling a love story, seeks to gain too much mileage from jokes centering on winking to the audience about Shakespeare’s plays and characters (an early idea for Romeo and Juliet has the play called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, Queen Elizabeth asks for a comedic play for Twelfth Night, the list goes on as do the quotes from Shakespeare’s works).

This over-reliance on such jokes is a shame as the performances by the entire cast are truly top notch and between them and the love story there is more than enough here to make the picture an excellent one.  The main love story between Viola and Will (as he is known in the movie) plays out wonderfully, and serves as the inspiration for Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet, the play on which he is currently working.  The entirety of this story, while perhaps not historically accurate, plays out in terribly witty if not completely believable fashion and manages to maintain a great deal of levity despite the fact that it is clear from the outset that it can’t end well (it is, after all, the basis for Romeo and Juliet and we all know how that ends).

Particularly notable in the film is the Oscar-nominated performance by Geoffrey Rush.  Rush is Philip Henslowe, the owner of The Rose theater and the man for whom Shakespeare is writing Romeo and Juliet.  Rush is, even when being tortured, laugh-out-loud funny.  In Rush’s hands, Henslowe’s repeated insistence that everything will work out wonderfully for the play despite not having a clue how that will take place seems less delusional and more hard-won knowledge based on years of experience and more than one ulcer.

Also of note is Ben Affleck’s performance as Ned Alleyn.  He is, at best, the fifth male lead behind Fiennes, Firth, Rush, and Tom Wilkinson, and some of the best nudge-nudge jokes in the film are directed towards his character’s willingness to take a backseat in Shakespeare’s current play.

There is, in fact, a whole lot of good that can be said of Shakespeare in Love – it is wise, witty, and incredibly charming.  It is one of those romantic comedies that make one believe that the genre isn’t solely littered with low brow, forgettable films.  Shakespeare in Love is filled with gorgeous costumes, great sets, and a game cast; it just never takes this plethora of great elements and manages to convince one that it is a great movie.

The new Blu-ray release of the film is, much like the film itself, absolutely gorgeous to see and hear.  Colors pop off the screen in the film, and the textures and subtle designs on the costumes are clearly visible (and make it clear why they won an Oscar).  There is nary a scratch nor bit of dirt to be seen, and the black levels are good as well.  The Master Audio DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack helps Shakespearian England come alive with the sounds of crowds and the theater all around.  The Oscar-winning score is fully realized, too.  It is a beautifully clean and clear track and serves the movie very well.

The film comes to Blu-ray with two audio commentary tracks, the first with Madden and the second with members of the cast and crew.  Deleted scenes, trailers, and a brief piece on the costumes are also present.  The only special feature of any length present on the release is an overly polished discussion of the film and its production using clips and talking heads.  The work has the feel of a standard produced-for-television-as-an-extended-commercial feel.

Shakespeare in Love is a thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy.  Where the film has a tendency to fall short though is in its over-used breaking of the fourth wall to wink at the audience.  To be sure, some of these efforts succeed, but for every one that hits more than one misses and eventually they just become rather tiring.  These instances don’t ruin the film by any stretch of the imagination, but they do tend to temper one’s enthusiasm.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.