Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi
Director:  John Madden
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Shakespeare Info
Length:  122 Minutes
Release Date:  August 10, 1999

Film ****

Shakespeare in Love.  In a word?  Perfection.

The film that captured last year’s Academy Award for Best Picture has also captured the hearts and imaginations of movie goers along with it.  It casts a magical, romantic spell with charming performances, lively comedy, a love story seldom equaled on the big screen, and one of the most wonderful screenplays in recent memory.

Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard have drawn on the Bard for inspiration before—they also penned the play/movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  It made for a fine play, but wretched movie.  Here, there are no such stumbling blocks, as they weave an imaginary tale directly for the screen of what might have occurred in the life of Shakespeare to inspire the most famous romantic play of all, Romeo and Juliet.

In a time of chaos, and amidst the background of a plague ridden Europe, a theatre owner (Rush) has one last chance to save himself from some nasty creditors…the latest play by William Shakespeare (Fiennes), a bawdy comedy titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.  There’s just one problem.  The Bard has writer’s block.  In a scene designed to look like modern psychoanalysis, he pines for his “broken quill”.  He must find his muse, or there is no hope for the play.

As fate would have it, he finds inspiration in the lovely but unattainable Viola (Paltrow), a girl destined to marry for duty and not love, but who takes respite in the lyrical, beautiful words that drip from the pen of Will.  Longing to speak his words, but in an era where women were forbidden on stage, she dons the guise of a boy to win a part in the play.

As their romance unfolds, at first beautifully, but ultimately sadly, the play begins to reflect their relationship.  After a change of title, Will soon finds himself writing the tragedy that the world would never forget.  One of the film’s masterful touches is the way it cuts between scenes of Will and Viola, and scenes of the play in rehearsal.  It’s as if we can see how every aspect of their lives turned into literary and theatrical gold.  It truly becomes the greatest love story never told behind the greatest love story ever told.

Of course, the theatre owner is beside himself with the sudden change of mood in the work that he hopes will bail him out.  “Is this funny to you?” he asks a passing actor.  “I was a pirate king, now I’m a nurse,” he replies.  That’s funny.”

This movie simply transcends the genre of the romantic comedy, by being as rich and luscious an experience as a true Shakespearean play.  Credit the writers…they know their Bard.  And credit director John Madden, too, for creating a well paced, visually sumptuous and delightfully fanciful world for his characters to blossom in.  But it’s the actors who bring it all to joyous life, and every one of them is terrific, particularly Paltrow, who radiates from the screen in her Oscar winning performance, and Fiennes, whose passion, humor, and vulnerability helps drive the story (in a role that should have received Oscar consideration).    The cast is rounded out by three more winners of the golden statuette, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and Ben Affleck, who’s hysterical as the would-be leading man (“you’re not going to do it like that, are you?”).

All of these elements work together to create a movie that most casts and crews aim for, but few ever attain.  It’s a magical, wonderfully comic and beautifully touching film that most who view it will not forget.

Video ****

Okay, on to the goods.  DVD fans have waited a long time for a Disney company to release an anamorphic transfer for disc, and now that it’s finally here, how does it look?  Flawless.  Two things were immediately apparent to me in the first five minutes…the theatrical print I had seen twice before had been badly underlit, and in the wrong aspect ratio.  This is a 2.35:1 transfer, and gloriously bright and colorful.  There’s not a hint of bleeding, grain, compression, noise or any kind of distraction to be found.  All colors are vibrant and bright, and even in the busier screen compositions are all perfectly defined, crisp and sharp.  Interestingly enough, Disney seemed to take little pride or offer any fanfare with their first widescreen enhanced disc, though the rumors suggest since the film was a joint effort from Miramax and Universal that it was Universal responsible for authoring the DVD master.  No matter, the point is, we have a stellar, perfect transfer as a result—one of the best I’ve ever seen—and I found myself beaming at my screen from beginning to end. 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 soundtrack is terrific, too, with a rousing musical score and plenty of dynamic range, with good sparing use of the surround stage for effects and ambience.  Dialogue, which is the most important part, is sharp and crystal clear throughout.  An excellent effort.

Okay, I have one beef, and leave it to Disney to spoil an otherwise perfect disc.  The layer switch is placed at a moment in the film when the score is in a dramatic crescendo.  Right in the middle of it…musicus interruptus.  Talk about losing the moment.

Features **

This original release of Shakespeare in Love contains only a trailer and some Shakespearean historical information.  However, there is also a more expensive Collector's Series disc that contains much more.


No matter which studio is most responsible, the fact is, we have our first Disney issued anamorphic transfer on DVD, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful—not to mention, a good choice of film to be their first.  So bravo, Disney, we knew you had it in you all along.  Keep them coming!