Tuesday, March 22, 2011

1998: Shakespeare in Love

Will Shakespeare has promised several people to give them a new play called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter.  There's just one problem: he's experiencing the worst writer's block of his life.  Then he meets and falls in love with the gorgeous Lady Viola, and the words begin flowing from his quill.  But to complicate matters, Lady Viola is engaged to somebody else, and she's also disguising herself as a boy so she can play the lead in Shakespeare's new show.  As Will and Viola's relationship evolves, so does the play he's writing.

I think this is probably the most surprising Best Picture Winner so far.  It actually borders on romantic comedy, and the Academy is usually loath to honor films of that genre with this award (with a few earlier exceptions).  It's barely over two hours long, and it was also nominated against such depressing, well-made war films as Saving Private Ryan and Life is Beautiful.  One can't help but wonder: what in the world possessed the Academy to call this the Best Picture of 1998?

I don't know the answer for sure, but I have a few theories.  It might be the incredible chemistry between the film's leads, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes.  Or the fabulous performances by the talented supporting cast, including Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and even Ben Affleck.  Perhaps the Academy was blown away by the glamorous costumes or the witty dialogue.  They might have been intrigued by the story within the story, and the effective manner in which the film showed Will's play and life mirroring each other.  Or maybe they just got tired of all the overly depressing movies, and decided this was the year to go in a completely different direction.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad this film won.  Not because I think for a moment that it deserved the award more than Saving Private Ryan did, but because it's much better than I expected, and I probably wouldn't have watched it otherwise.  There was way too much sex in it, but that's pretty much my only complaint.  I've read Romeo and Juliet so many times, and seen so many versions of it on stage and screen, that it was very fun for me to watch the original idea evolve into what it eventually became.  The way the story comes together is truly brilliant, and I don't think you have to be too familiar with Romeo and Juliet to appreciate that.  Making 16th-century characters relatable to a 21st-century audience is no easy task, but these filmmakers managed it with ease.  This is an entertaining film, and while I'm still kind of confused as to why it's on this list, I think it's well worth watching.

Coming up next: American Beauty

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