Cinema: Shakey? It's pretty thin

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The Independent Culture
Shakespeare in Love (15)

If you like the word "romp" when it's applied to a film, as well as the words "bawdy" and "buxom" and "rollicking" and "frolicking" and even "bollocking"; if you enjoy heritage cinema providing it's not too arty and precious but is the kind that has character actors with bad teeth and chamber pots being emptied out of first-floor windows and lots of serving wenches with plump bosoms stuffed into tightly corseted decolletes like two glistening boules of ice-cream packed inside a cone, and if you believe, finally, that the theatre is a more important art than the cinema, then Shakespeare in Love is the film for you.

Actually, I'm unfair. It will give pleasure to many people who would be unwilling to recognise themselves in the mean-spirited stereotype personified by the "you" of the preceding paragraph. For myself, though, the film's very success has posed a real problem. Because of all the hoo-ha surrounding it, because of the unprecedented slew of pre-release articles and interviews, profiles and puffs, a conventional review feels pretty redundant at this belated stage of the game. If you aren't already aware that Shakespeare in Love is about a frustrated Bard whose inspiration is unblocked through his courtship of the ethereally virginal (and of course totally imaginary) Viola de Lesseps; that Joseph Fiennes plays Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow plays his immaculately accented inamorata, that the film's scenario was written by Tom Stoppard (sorry, co-written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard), and that it all ends by coming more or less right on the night (for this is both Shakespeare in Love and Shakespeare in Luvvieland), then you're patently so indifferent to the fashionable doings of the current cinema that nothing I can say now is liable to make the least bit of difference.

But review the film I must. So am I, then, the odd critic out, "The Man Who Disliked Shakespeare in Love" (with, as cartoonists say, apologies to H E Bateman)? Not really. Its charm is undeniable, its screenplay ingeniously constructed and, like those of every reviewer in the country, my fingers instinctively itch to type out the adjective "luminous" to describe Paltrow's presence. Most of the jokey anachronisms may be facile and mechanical (they reminded me of nothing so much as those evenings in my adolescence when I used to listen to the old Round the Horne show on steam radio), but they still prompt a smile. And if the basic narrative premiss - that poets can create only if they've been inspired by a beautiful flesh-and- blood Muse - is by now a dog-eared cliche, well, there's life in the old dog yet. In one of his essays, Gore Vidal quoted a passage from a novel by some bestselling purveyor of middlebrow fiction, a Herman Wouk or James Michener, and commented of it, "That's not bad - except as prose". Shakespeare in Love is not bad - except as cinema.

Let me explain what I mean with a little personal anecdote. When, recently, I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was going to review the film, he replied that he himself was dying to see it. So then I asked him if he knew the name of its director. Whereupon, his eyes glazed over and he finally mumbled, "Oh, you have me there".

A natural reaction, considering that the film's publicity has focused virtually exclusively on its actors and writers (or, rather, one of its writers), but for me it's exactly like saying that there's a wonderful opera at Covent Garden and yet being unable to identify the composer. Opera, like cinema, may arguably be a "collective" form, but one individual's artistry remains supreme - and so it does, or ought to do, with film. Subject-matter - in which category I would include screenplays - primarily exists for directors to stamp their own personalities on it. I truly believe this. To propose a grotesque but instantly comprehensible hypothesis, if Eric Rohmer were to make a film about Michael Winner (bear with me, please), I would, as an almost unconditional admirer of Rohmer, and despite certain inevitable misgivings, wish to see it; if, even more grotesquely, Michael Winner were to make a film about Eric Rohmer, I would run a mile in the opposite direction.

The director of Shakespeare in Love is John Madden, who is a perfectly competent organiser of visual material and an effective director of actors. But there's not a spark of specifically cinematic invention in his work. The period reconstruction resembles every other period reconstruction you ever saw (think of the lightness of touch a Richard Lester, say, might have brought to it). Not one of the performers has been encouraged to act against type or offer more than we already know he or she is capable of - most notably, Judi Dench as the beady-eyed, sharp-tongued monarch (these days there would appear to be only one way to play a British queen, be it Elizabeth I, Victoria or Elizabeth II). And every single aspect of the film has been so calculated to appeal to the widest possible audience that, even if it has an unhappy ending, it cushions the blow by seeming to intimate that there might actually be a sequel in the offing. (Shakespeare in America?) To a film for everyone I continue to prefer a film by someone.

Curiously, the British cinema has been here before, more than once. In the mid-1930s, it was Alexander Korda who dispelled (for a while) our domestic industry's chronic sense of inferiority towards the Hollywood product. His The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton as a Henry of gargantuan appetites and outrageous marital antics, was the Shakespeare in Love of its day. A quarter of a century later, similar hopes were invested in Tony Richardson's modishly larky Tom Jones, scripted by another playwright, John Osborne. And in 2025 there'll be - well, who knows, but you can be sure there'll be something.