Becoming Jane

a film directed by Julian Jarrold


a film directed by Laurent Tirard

Shakespeare in Love

a film directed by John Madden

Question: What do Shakespeare, Molière, Jane Austen, and the Brontës have in common other than genius?

Answer: They’ve all been the subject of movies that aim to show us how great writers do the thing they do—that is, write.

We’re not talking about movies that recapitulate a highly dramatic event in the writer’s life: the Dreyfus affair in The Life of Emile Zola; Oscar Wilde’s trial in a scattering of Wilde movies. Or a special case like the film of The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s highfalutin novel that glossed the life of Virginia Woolf and provided Nicole Kidman with an Oscar-winning nose. We’re talking about movies that think they can convey something about “the creative process” by dishing up conventional plots for their heroes against lots of period decor: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, we get Hamlet.

Actually, in Shakespeare in Love we get Romeo and Juliet. Joseph Fiennes is darting around Olde London hoping to scrounge up an idea for a new play, and then he encounters Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), the young heiress who’s wildly stagestruck and far more interested in the young Bard than in the powerful aristocrat she’s duty-bound to marry. The Queen herself—Judi Dench at her most Oscar-hungry—has okayed the marriage, though she has her doubts. (No fool, she.)

Forget the cuckoo tongue-in-cheek plot, along with the doublets and the candelabra and the cleavage; forget the Will-Viola kiss-fest that quickly turns into a fuck-fest (oh, those lusty Elizabethans!); forget the dedicated-to-the-theater yet comical antics of the Players. And listen to the message on the current Shakespeare in Love DVD package: “When Will Shakespeare needs passionate inspiration to break a bad case of writer’s block, a secret romance with the beautiful Lady Viola starts the words flowing like never before!”

The key word is “inspiration,” and the message of all these lit-flicks (as well as the film bios of the more flamboyant painters and composers) is that to get the job done—to write the great play, compose the great symphony, paint the Sistine Chapel or the bridge at Arles—you need to Experience Life. Which means you need to fall in love—and then lose the loved one. And suffer. Yes, young Will Shakespeare may have done some effective work before Romeo—that’s why theater managers are hounding him to come up with something new—but it’s only when sparks start to fly between him and Lady V that the poetry perks up. Pre-Viola we see the quill faltering in his ink-stained hand, blotched and incomplete pages flung to the floor. (His more personal tool has lost its touch too.) Post-Viola, the quill flies across the foolscap—whole acts are tossed off in mere hours—though where he finds even the odd moment in which to wright his play is hard to determine, since he’s rehearsing all day and tooling all night. But that’s what inspiration will do for you.

When he actually gets going, the play he’s writing comes easily, because it just mirrors what’s going on in his…

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