'Shakespeare in Love': THR's 1998 Review

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Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes in 'Shakespeare in Love' (1998)
In a little more than two hours, director John Madden ('Mrs. Brown'), screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard and a terrific cast and crew accomplish the miraculous.

On Dec. 11, 1998, Miramax unveiled the R-rated Shakespeare in Love in limited release. The film went on to win seven Oscars at the 71st Academy Awards ceremony, including best actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, best supporting actress Judi Dench and best picture. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

Good Will writing ... and loving ... and running ... but, look sharp, the sun and moon are outshone by his fair lady!

Miramax has hit the jackpot again with the crowd-pleasing romp — sex, sacrifice and sonnets — that is Shakespeare in Love

A project long in the making, originally developed by Universal with Edward Zwick in line to direct, this wonderfully entertaining film should break out of the pack and enjoy mainstream success. A strong run for the Oscar by lead Gwyneth Paltrow will help extend its deserved longevity in theaters and its robust prospects in ancillary and international markets. 

In a little more than two hours, director John Madden (Mrs. Brown), screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard and a terrific cast and crew accomplish the miraculous. They faithfully recreate Elizabethan times and stagecraft, imagine a soaring romance for the most famous author in the English language (if not the universe), show the genesis and evolution of that immortal tragedy Romeo and Juliet and revel equally in the story's heady/sweaty mixture of classic literature and free love. 

It sounds simple, but it could have gone awry so easily. With those much-pondered-upon holes in William Shakespeare's biography, the freedom to invent heroines and villains in his life might have resulted in a charming lark and nothing more. 

Madden and company dive straight into the vibrant milieu after a classy opening showing the open-air, intimate theatrical settings of London circa 1593. A dashing lover with a secret or two, desperate to meet success playwriting in a highly competitive environment, our man Will (Joseph Fiennes) is not above promising both major theater companies his work — whether he manages to finish it. 

Theater owner Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) is convinced that only broad comedy sells, so his friend, the Bard-to-be, sketches out a play to be titled "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate." Will doesn't have his heart in it, though, and he goes on the prowl for a muse. 

After a false start, he's gloomily auditioning actors when a passionate young thesp impresses him but flees to the confines of a tony residence. The pursuit is on, with the youth turning out to be Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), an heiress on the marriage block with an adventurous soul, poetic heart and overwhelming desire to act on stage (which women were not allowed to do). 

Indeed, the audience is way ahead of Will in getting to know and grow fond of Viola — Paltrow wondrously delivers Elizabethan-era dialogue throughout — after day dreamy scenes with her stoic Nurse (Imelda Staunton). In a "real-life" plot that more and more resembles Romeo and Juliet as it progresses, she is promised to the pompous, dangerous Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) by no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench in a scene-stealing performance). 

Will risks injury and even death to make love and poesy with Viola as — with much help from her, an ill-fated rival playwright and many others, including young hotshot actor Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) — he refashions his work-in-progress into a tragedy, mirroring his unfortunate situation, which is presented admirably as insoluble given the social constraints of the age. — David Hunter, originally published on Dec. 7, 1998