Written by Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Marc Norman, this 1998 film is both a comedy and a romance–and it is very successful at both.
Using the premise that Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare’s breakthrough drama, the movie begins with Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as a poor player in Lord Chamberlain’s Men struggling to write a comedy for Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), owner of the Rose Theater, to be called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. As was the custom in those days, they began to cast the play before it was completed–or in this case–even started. Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, disguises herself as a man so she can audition. When Shakespeare sees her, he chases after her and follows her back to her palatial home, remaining to watch the ball, hoping to get a glance at the boy who had impressed him. When he sees Viola dancing, he insinuates himself into it and falls hopelessly in love with her. Viola, however, is slated to marry Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) and go off with him to the new world where he plans to run a successful tobacco plantation. Shakespeare, now deeply in love, changes his play from a comedy to a drama and renames his heroine Juliet.
The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Gwyneth Paltrow won Best Actress and Judi Densch won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. The cinematography is terrific, as are the costumes, and the set, which was built specially for the movie. The direction by John Madden is tight, with terrific editing.
But the star of the movie is the script, which incorporates hilarious scenes, counterbalanced by wonderful romantic scenes. It is extremely witty, incorporating quotes and references to Shakespeare’s life and inspirations throughout, and liberally sprinkled with quotations. Although Norman had the original idea, it was Stoppard’s masterful rewrite that makes the movie work. The marvelous parallel of Romeo and Juliet with the tragedy of Will and Viola works like a charm, as many of the scenes between the young couple actually make it into the play. The final and most wonderful element is the substitution of Viola as Juliet, performing before Queen Elizabeth, in a time when all women’s roles were played by men. Equally powerful is the idea at the very end that Viola inspired Shakespeare to write Twelfth Night in her honor. Although most this story is completely made up–and abounds in historical inaccuracies–it remains a wonderful movie and it inspired me to go back and reread some of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.
I highly recommend this movie to everyone!