The Bard on the Big Screen: Much Ado About “Much Ado,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and More

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is winning high praise at film festivals, promising moviegoers an infusion of intelligence, romance, and sophistication during summertime’s typically juvenile program of explosions.

Glenn Kenny, for example, writes,

The entire cast, indeed, revels not just in Shakespeare’s language but in the clever way this play both conforms, in its plot points, to the now-antiquated gender roles of its time but also subverts them, giving acute but not overemphatic stresses on the subversions.  It’s a take on the play that purists can certainly respect, and that novices may well find seductive or at least engaging.

And A.O. Scott says,

From its very first scenes, Mr. Whedon’s film crackles with a busy, slightly wayward energy that recalls the classic romantic sparring of the studio era.

I want to believe.

The last time I saw an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing at the movies, I was disappointed. Kenneth Branagh’s enthusiastic production gave us some wonderful scenes, but the cast was a distracting mix of celebrities, some of them excellent, some miscast.

Due to the difficulty of adapting Shakespeare’s complex period pieces for the screen, I suspect that you, like me, have a personal opinion about which attempts were mishandled and which turned out to be magnificent.

So tell us.

What’s your favorite big-screen blast of the Bard? Is there some Shakespeare on the big screen that deserves more attention than it’s received?

For me, there is one that stands out from the rest: Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, a work that made Branagh’s future on the big screen seem incredibly promising… perhaps too promising. Nothing he’s done since then has captured and inspired me like that.

Then, of course, there are Shakespeare movies and then there are Shakespeare-related films.

I’ve found Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, based on the Tom Stoppard play, to be worth revisiting time and time again.

But for every admirable title, I can think of several that frustrate me. I avoided Anonymous, for example It turned out to be a crowd-pleaser, but it was based on a preposterous premise that will provoke the perpetuation of silly conspiracy theories for generations to come.

And then there’s Shakespeare in Love.

That’s a film that… well… maybe it’s time for me to restore my original review to the online archive.

This review was originally published at one of the earliest versions of this blog, way back in 1998. Although I have always made it a practice to revise reviews from time to time, reading it feels a little like looking at snapshots from my childhood. Here it is, such as it is…

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To see Shakespeare in Love, or not to see it… that is the question.

Proceed with caution. Shakespeare in Love boasts a brilliant screenplay by Tom Stoppard and a spirited cast, including a scene-stealing Judi Dench, and what is, by my lights, the finest acting of Gwyneth Paltrow short, luminous career.

Cast off your idea that Shakespeare films are stuffy. This one’s as lusty as movies come.

Lust. We’ll get back to that word in a while.

Shakespeare in Love proves once and for all that the Fiennes family must have put something spicy in the baby food. Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare demonstrates as much… nay, even more intensity than his melodramatic brother Ralph (Schindler’s List, Quiz Show, Prince of Egypt). You get the feeling that if this Shakespeare had a fight over a woman with that man behind the mask in The English Patient, we’d see the screen’s most spectacularly bitter duel… and it would be fought with Ralph and Joseph’s stares.

Eyes intent as blowtorches, Fiennes plays Shakespeare as a man so hot-blooded that, before he can sit down and write a word, he has to go out, intoxicate himself with lust, dawdle with tawdry mistresses, then return to his desk, spin around three times, spit on the ground, clap his hands, and rub his quill pen between his sweaty palms. (If that sounds like a euphemism, well, it almost is.) He writes as if he’s a wrestler in the ring. If writing were this much fun, people would buy tickets to a rough draft and shout, “Go, Playwright! Fill those pages! Pin this play to the ground!”

If it weren’t for Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola, Shakespeare’s dream girl, this play would burn itself out with overacting. With Fiennes about ready to explode, Gwyneth provides the cool. She is graceful, subtle, practically glowing as she moves from the elaborate ballroom dances to a secret rendezvous in the shadows. When she hears Shakespeare’s latest verse, she sighs, “I will have poetry in my life, adventure, and love… love as there has never been in a play….” (She seems here far more eloquent at spontaneous speech than Shakespeare, who is left stammering about his play’s premise: “Well, there’s this pirate…”.)

Viola seems honestly enraptured by the language… the language, not the man. Even when she’s trapped by Shakespeare’s Death Star Tractor Beam stare, it is clear that she is thinking of the plays, and thus allows herself to be swept away by the great creator, somehow blind to the fact that he’s a womanizing fool as well as an eloquent scribe. Before they’ve even had an honest-to-goodness “Hi, How are you?” conversation, they’re rolling in the sheets. It’s as though they’re stuck in one of those movies where a meteor is coming to destroy the world, and they’re “seizing the day.”

But alas those difficult times. Viola must marry Lord Wessex, a Disney-esque villain (Colin Firth) who is an investor in tobacco (Tobacco: Investment of Villains). Wessex cares only about Viola’s fortune and seems indifferent to her beauty, grace, and rumored virtue. Seriously, what is wrong with this dude?

Speaking of virtue — is this play about virtue? We are compelled to be repulsed by the idea of this forced mismatch of Viola and Wessex. We must, of course, desire Viola to wed her heart’s true love, Shakespeare. The movie certainly makes one wonder which God will smile on more; her “arranged” marriage or her hasty carnal revelry with the guy who sweet-talked her into the sheets. I was leaning towards thinking that her “true” marriage was with Shakespeare… until I thought about one fact that the movie hopes we’ll forget.

Shakespeare is already married.

He’s abandoned his wife and children to run around winning the hearts of young Viola’s.

We are given a moment to ponder the gravity of this, and for a moment I was excited the movie was going to tackle a seriously messy moral dilemma. But alas, no such luck. After the moment of tension, we’re supposed to accept that marriage means nothing when the hormones move. We’re expected to laugh off the bard’s past errors and applaud his latest passionate mistake. We never see the wife he left behind. We never see his children. This movie is as much in denial of the value of responsibility and faithfulness as this Shakespeare himself. The filmmakers seem to shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s tough, but here’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and what married man in his right mind wouldn’t abandon wife and children to jump into the sack with her?”

It is this “love” inconvenienced by a greedy suitor that supposedly drives Shakespeare to his greatest work, Romeo and Juliet, and the play’s debut provides the stage for the movie’s brilliantly executed (if thoroughly implausible and predictable) resolution.

Still, for all advocacy of unfaithfulness and self-destructive behavior, the artful screenplay does offer a thousand true delights, witty turns of phrase, and truly stirring speeches.

Geoffrey Rush, who has proven that he can play everything from a disabled genius composer (Shine) to a malevolent comic book villain (Mystery Men), here creates another engaging character. A clumsy bankrupt theater manager, he’ll do anything to host Shakespeare’s next play. Judi Dench’s Queen is a cross between another of her great chacters — Mrs. Brown — and a character that I now suspect she could have played if she’d put her mind to it… Jabba the Hutt. She’s as intimidating, awe-inspiring and ornate as any character on the screen this year.

Ben Affleck works hard to fit in with all of these classically trained Brits, and he doesn’t embarrass himself, but one does pity him as he watches his real-life girlfriend get hot and heavy with Fiennes over and over again. Rupert Everett is a welcome sight as Christopher Marlowe, vital to the film’s most brilliant subplot and twists. Even Simon Callow, one of my favorite period-piece regulars (the lovable Mr. Beebe in A Room With a View) storms in a few times to add some muscle.

But why, oh why, did they have to pour so much syrup on what might have been the year’s finest confection? With its heavy dose of gratuitous nudity, rumors of which will be sure to draw in males viewers who are otherwise allergic to Shakespeare, the film violates its own high-minded talk of true love with fuel for adolescent fantasies. Thus, for this moviegoer, Shakespeare in Love falls far short of Tom Stoppard’s other bard-related production: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

This film is wrongfully named. It has powerful language and a wealth of talent as its distinguishing marks, but it shies away, curiously, from poetry, subtlety, and art whenever the lovers embrace, and we’re left with no heroes or heroines worth swooning for.

In truth, this is Shakespeare in Lust.

Director – John Madden; writers – Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard; director of photography – Richard Greatrex; editor – David Gamble; music – Stephen Warbeck; costumes – Sandy Powell; production designer – Martin Childs; producers – David Parritt, Donna Gigliotti, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick and Marc Norman. Starring – Gwyneth Paltrow (Viola de Lesseps), Joseph Fiennes (Will Shakespeare), Geoffrey Rush (Philip Henslowe), Colin Firth (Lord Wessex), Ben Affleck (Ned Alleyn), Judi Dench (Queen Elizabeth), Rupert Everett (Christopher Marlowe), Simon Callow (Tilney, Master of the Revels), Jim Carter (Ralph Bashford), Martin Clunes (Richard Burbage), Antony Sher (Dr. Moth), Imelda Staunton (Nurse), Tom Wilkinson (Hugh Fennyman) and Mark Williams (Wabash). Miramax Films. 113 minutes.
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  • Judith Sears

    I don’t think it’s “Shakespeare in Lust,” it’s Shakespeare in Love, but, ultimately he’s in love with theatre, with being true to his muse. Viola is both a symbol and a real woman and I think they balance that duality in the role fairly well.

    I sit on the fence on the way the relationship between Viola and Shakespeare is presented. One factual note: in the script he doesn’t leave Anne Hathaway for Viola, he’s left Anne years ago, apparently. Not that that makes it less adulterous, just saying, the marriage is already estranged. (The affair with Rosalinde precedes Viola, after all.)

    At one point in the film Viola says, “this is a stolen season, Will, this isn’t life.” She’s reflecting on their romance. She knows it is not going to last. She knows it’s an affair, period. Viola verbalizes it, but in ways great and small the movie is telling us, this is an affair: a grande affair, one for the ages, perhaps, but an affair.

    Given that eros is our second strongest drive and given that circumstances have, probably at least as often as not, prevented people down through the centuries from happiness in marriage, I think it’s perfectly realistic and appropriate to present two characters who’ve had a “stolen season” and who are not presented as simply miserable and depraved characters.

    Their ultimate fate is presented VERY realistically, even stoically. How does the story end? As Queen Elizabeth says, “as stories must when love’s denied, with tears and a journey.” They don’t “get away” with anything, except for a few weeks of passion. Then they are forced to face up to the real expectations and demands of their lives and give each other up – and they do, and both characters do this bravely.

    Does God smile on their adulterous affair – no, but He’s not shocked and they’ve paid the price, so…can you only admire characters who’ve only made good choices? Can you not admire a character who’s made a bad choice, but “mans up” as we say these days?

    Consider: in today’s sex-saturated environment where sex is cheap, it would be very hard for a movie to come up with real thwarting of eros – or for moviemakers to even conceive of any reason to do it – you just divorce, you just have an affair, you just whatever. One of the great things about Shakespeare in Love was how it showed a real illicit passion between two people who really were lovers, but did not allow that to be the basis of a fairy tale. The world made demands on them and they met those demands.

    And, btw, I’ve been saying, “eros” where you were saying, “lust” and that’s part of the difference. I think what the movie is presenting deserves the term, “eros” – in the sense of a drive that, as the Greeks understood it, is ultimately directed toward the Divine. Granted, this is illegitimate passion, but no way is the affair between Will & Viola to be equated with today’s “hook-up” culture, for example.

    I did think that the montages of Will & Viola’s passion intercut with acting of various scenes of Romeo and Juliet worked brilliantly. The passion is undeniable and the way the director cut it, we understand the passion in the words and how well the passion of the words express the passion of the bodies.

    I read Paltrow somewhere saying she wanted the nudity so they didn’t have the “false” strategic covers of sheets or whatever. I think they missed it by making the sexuality so explicit. By covering Ms. Paltrow a bit more and going for a PG-13, they could have gotten the fan girls who go to movies again and again – the ones that took Titanic to epic grosses – and made $200+ million instead of the $100+ m or whatever it was. (And, none of the symmetry between the physical passion and the words would have been compromised one iota.)

    I was less enthralled by Ms. Paltrow than you, but I thought her performance was very good. OTOH, I didn’t see any overacting in Joe Fiennes at all.

    I really like this image of yours: ” If writing were this much fun, people would buy tickets to a rough draft and shout, “Go, Playwright! Fill those pages! Pin this play to the ground!”

    I do a little scribbling, so I think I’ll print that out and stick it up above the computer.

    P. S. Ben Affleck has his own “alley cat” reputation – i doubt Paltrow & Fiennes scenes caused him any concern at all. I thought he just barely escaped embarrassing himself amongst a troupe of distinguished Shakespeareans.

  • Ancalagon

    Branagh’s Hamlet
    Branagh’s Henry V
    The weird old BBC Lear with Ian Holm (Biblo!) as King Lear

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

    So I was blown away by the Ralph Fiennes version of Coriolanus from 2011. I think I may have been the only person to see it in the entire universe – it came and went with hardly a whisper – but it was fantastic. The first time I’ve really been gripped and sucked into a Shakespeare play with which I wasn’t already completely familiar.

    • Evan

      I saw it as well; it was good, but it didn’t blow me away like other Shakespeare productions have. I thought the performances were incredible, especially Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain, but I found the modernized, present day setting to be jarring, especially hearing the unchanged Shakespeare dialogue while all the characters always held cellphones and camcorders.

      It should have gotten more attention though; the performances alone made it worth watching.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

        Hm. that’s funny. It’s the modern day warfare that I liked. it was actually suspenseful. I thought the performances were good too, but the modern, tense setting put it in a new category for me. Like, Shakespeare meets action flick.

        • Judith Sears

          Looks like there’s 3 of us that saw it – I also thought it was excellent and I thought the modern, vaguely Iraq setting worked well.

  • Stanley Goodspeed

    Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD is, to me, the best filmed Shakespeare adaptation.

    Several of my other picks have been mentioned already, but I would add Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Yeah, I know. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for that film.

  • SMSeattle

    Best: Ian McKellan’s “Richard III”. I agree with Evan about “Ran”.

  • Evan

    My favorite Shakespeare films:

    I’ve said Branagh’s [i]Henry V[/i] is in my all time top ten for awhile now, so I would have to say that’s my favorite adaptation of a Shakespeare play. The other one that stands above the rest, IMO, is Kurosawa’s [i]Ran[/i].

    I also really admire Branagh’s [i]Hamlet[/i], specifically for its epic-ness; Zeffirelli’s [i]Romeo and Juliet[/i], and the film of [i]West Side Story[/i].

    Kurosawa’s [i]Throne of Blood[/i], Branagh’s [i]Much Ado[/i], and Olivier’s [i]Hamlet[/i] are all pretty good, but they have enough flaws to prevent me from calling them my favorites.


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