Film: Shakespeare goes to the prom

The Big Picture
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It's OK to admit you liked Clueless; a fondness for Scream won't get you lynched; but the teen take-over of popular culture is still a matter of embarrassment for the most of us "grown-ups". My mother, for instance, loves Buffy the Teenage Vampire Slayer, but that's in the secrecy of her own home. How many over-25s will venture forth to see 10 Things I Hate About You - a reworking of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and the latest teen movie to wow America?

The poster alone is off-putting: five kids gawp out at us in various attitudes of defiance (they've all got improbably long legs, too). And cultural purists looking for proof that America is the root of all things dumb and dumber will have a field day. Transplanting the Shakespeare classic to a ubiquitous high school, it appears guilty of every aesthetic crime, not only indifferent to the Bard's exotic poetry (where Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet let Shakespeare speak for himself, 10 Things is full of phrases such as "spank-bank" and "heinous bitch"), but self-obsessed (the teen movie genre is its real reference point) and politically correct to boot. To which one can only say: if this is dumbing down, then fie, 'tis a wondrous thing.

For what young, previously unknown scriptwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith have done is chosen a Shakespeare play that actually needs rewriting. Shakespeare's tale of two sisters, Katarina and Bianca - one stroppy, one sweet - is not only conservative, but psychologically unbalanced. Its hero Petruchio - the sadistic fortune-hunter who tames Kate - performs his office too well. A battle of the sexes? It's a rout.

Having said that, not everything about the original is gone, with Lutz and Smith often content to wittily up-date. Thus, the tension between the sisters (in the play, Bianca can't marry till Kate does) is now explained by their obstetrician dad's paranoia. The fact that kewpie doll Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) isn't allowed to date till man-hating Kat (Julia Stiles) finds a boyfriend, is his clever ruse to keep Bianca out of the mating game. Banking on the fact that Kat has no interest in "being adored", he thinks he'll be able to sleep "the deep slumber of a father whose daughters aren't out being impregnated".

Where changes to the play are made, it's in the name of a feminism that's neither didactic nor flip. Nor temporary. The slapping down of a previously indulged, feisty female has always provided cheap titillation at the movies, from Woman of the Year and Calamity Jane to last month's obnoxious teen hit She's All That. Even today, it appears, very few can resist the desire to pour a scary woman into high heels and a virginal dress. For once, though, the idea that every woman loves a fascist proves false. Katarina Stratford, you see, is a Sylvia Plath fan.

The new Petruchio, Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) is an altogether more passive creature, which is not to say Shakespear's hero disappears. Instead, his personality is transferred onto the baddie of the piece, Joey (Andrew Keegan). And, narcissistic and dismissive of women, it's he's who is finally tamed. Having been kicked in the balls, Joey lies writhing on the floor. Is he in pain or having an orgasm? It's hard to tell. With the last notes of "Cruel to be Kind" still hanging in the air (nice touch, that), it's clear that if anyone here has masochistic tendencies, it's the macho male.

The film also introduces a rather neat sub-text involving Kat's parents. In the play, Katarina's mother goes unmentioned - here she's left the family in the lurch, presumably - since the dad (Larry Miller) is a sad, balding couch potato - for a more exciting life. It's all done with the airiest of touches, but as with Jane Smiley's King Lear-like novel, A Thousand Acres, an imaginative leap makes instant but subtle sense of the fraught family dynamic. Kat thinks that if she remains a child her mummy will come home. Repressing her sexuality (along with Bianca's) is the obvious way to keep adulthood at bay.

As the film's knowing one-liners zip back and forth, tiny visual clues alert us to this trickier narrative thread. When Kat sees Bianca wearing their mother's pearl necklace she's furious, but as Bianca witheringly notes: "It's not like she's coming back." Towards the end of the film, at the prom, Kat appears in pearls. She's finally accepted her mother's gone for good.

As you can see, this is a film that allows adults to behave badly. In fact, the older generation are 10 Things' secret weapon, their irreverence coming as a constant, pleasant surprise. Thus Kat's black English teacher, Mr Morgan, thanks Kat for her thoughts on the patriarchal bias of the syllabus with the line: "I'm sorry for all your upper middle-class suburban oppression, but someone tell me why we can't buy a book written by a black man!"

As for Miss Perky (the school's guidance counsellor with a penchant for pornographic prose) she's a truly wonderful creation. But it's Larry Miller, as the father, who stands out. Seinfeld fans will remember him from a classic episode, "The Doorman". Well, he's even better here. Especially good are his attempts to show that he's one of the kids. Of Bianca's potential suitor he mutters cheerfully to himself: "I don't care how dope his ride is."

The younger actors' comic timing isn't always as reliable, but they're really there to charm and they do that exceedingly well, Julia Stiles in particular. In this age of triple-barrelled beauties such as Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jessica Love Hewitt - all friendly eyes and spiteful mouths - Stiles is like a swig of tap water. With that bread-stick body and Miss Piggy nose, she looks untampered with. Heath Ledger also makes a good bad boy, ready with his greasy snarl but tender when necessary. Seconds after a drunken Kat has coated his shoes in vomit, we find him stroking her tangled hair. Where other actors might have pushed the "sweetness" further (thus inducing a sense of nausea in us), Ledger just let's the erotic friendliness dangle.

Of course, false notes are struck. Kat's favourite riot grrrl band are horribly plastic (and would an intelligent girl like Kat have the All Saints on her bedroom wall?). Kat's flashing of her breasts and Patrick's sudden fondness for positivity ("Do you love her?" he asks Bianca's young fan Cameron, "well then, go for it!") also prove irksome. But on the whole, director Gil Junger knows what he's doing. As flyers for a free beer party swirl through the air to the sounds of Air, or kids pile into the playground as Joan Jett yells "Bad Reputation", this film makes even school look good. Capturing the dizzy rush of adolescence but also middle age, 10 Things sends you out into the real world on a high, your faith in mainstream American fare restored. And in case you're wondering, Lutz and Smith deal with anti-American snobbery head on. Says one cretinous valley girl to another: "I know you can be overwhelmed, and underwhelmed, but can you be whelmed?" to which her friend earnestly replies: "I think you can in Europe." Everything sophisticated and complicated comes from Europe. Who says so? Dummies, that's who.