Starlet of the 71st Academy Awards in 1999, Shakespeare in Love is a film that offers comedy, heartfelt sincerity and some brilliant performances. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s script leaps off the screen with witty vitality and John Madden’s masterful direction keeps the audience strung along with the blossoming narrative throughout. However, there is one thing that really, really makes this classic comedy come alive. And no, it’s not Judy Dench’s eight-minute stint as Queen Elizabeth I, even if it did win her an Oscar.
The one performer who has my heart in this stunner-filled flick is the very man who has had a career spanning every filmic nook from high school fart comedy to 2012’s Best Picture. That’s right, it’s the one and only Ben Affleck.
The film follows a young Will Shakespeare who has come to an unshiftable block in his poetic talents until he can find his muse, someone to reawaken his, ahem, poetic temperament. He then finds this in the beautiful Violetta, daughter of a wealthy aristocrat and soon to be wed to a Lord of the Queen’s. And so unfolds the story of Shakespeare’s inspiration and journey in the writing of Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter (or Romeo and Juliet as we now know it).
The storyline is wonderfully whimsical and allows for comedy to shine through every seam, while still being as moving as any story of true love and the obstacles which can come between two star-crossed lovers. This may by and large be due to the lifting of many of the best lines from Romeo and Juliet and from a handful of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but the solemnity of this feeds the comedic fire for the other points in the film.
Affleck plays Ned Allen, one of a troupe of touring actors who arrive back to the Rose Theatre to fill the parts of the first production of Shakespeare’s new play. Striding in with a pack of good-looking, talented actors of the time, Affleck saunters in with more charisma and chisel-jawed charm than you could shake a spear at. Entering with a triumphant “Huzzah!”, Affleck brings the biggest cameo-my-God of the film bursting out of the screen.
The hilarious misplaced anger and outbursts towards anyone in touching distance is what really gets me about Affleck’s performance. At the question, from the previously intimidating money behind the show, of “Who is this?” he draws his sword in an unnecessary display of anger and shouts the hilarious insult “Silence, you dog!” The declamatory put-downs of Affleck’s character are a pitch-perfect comic reflection of the writing of Shakespeare and his contemporaries while managing to demean the previously powerful Mr Fennyman.
Ned Allen is unflappable; his declaration to the assembled crowd of “What is the play and what is my part?” allows his ego to grow to even more comic proportions. Not only is what he does brilliant, but the other characters’ reactions to him, and his overconfidence, bring even more to his brilliant if fleeting performance. Playing Mercutio to Shakespeare’s Romeo, Allen is an essential character to the film, if only a small part of the narrative – and Affleck’s portrayal of the greatest actor of the time does not fall short.