As anyone who ever goes to the cinema knows, the critics don’t know they’re born. The troglodytic life of film critics – moving from darkened preview theatre to darkened bar before dashing off a few darkly cynical words, never meeting any human beings – ensures they lose touch with reality faster than in any other critical field. Those people – 98 per cent of them men – are all in some way damaged. As children they all pulled wings off flies and sneaked on their classmates to teacher.
A film is one of the most designed things on earth. Designed sometimes on a bewildering number of levels. Not for nothing do architects such as Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas point to film as a potent inspiration in their work. The best designers and the best directors see the world in the same way: as being capable of extraordinary and fertile modifications. The rural/suburban world of late French director/actor Jacques Tati, for instance, was as supremely architectural as anything on earth or in space by Ridley Scott.
All this was more than usually apparent when I went to see Shakespeare in Love. Most of the screenplay is by Tom Stoppard, the Shakespearian set comes courtesy of Shepperton Studios, and the love interest is provided by goggle-eyed Joseph Fiennes and swan-necked Gwyneth Paltrow. The critics didn’t know what to make of it. Was it an old-fashioned romance? Was Paltrow the new Audrey Hepburn? Was it an affront to Shakespeare? Was it too clever by half? Mostly they gave it three marks out of five and moved on to something their troglodytic minds could grasp more easily, such as Warren Beatty in Bulworth.
What most of them managed to overlook – as is often the case with Stoppard – was that the film is a broad, knockabout comedy. This is an intellectual’s triumphant attempt at Carry on Shakespeare. Stoppard, for instance, makes the younger playwright John Webster into a violence-obsessed teenager over-fond of torturing rats. This will mean little to anyone without a passing knowledge of Webster’s The White Devil or The Duchess of Malfi. The last play by Shakespeare this cinematic Webster admits to liking is gory Titus Andronicus. The only bit of Romeo and Juliet he gets off on is where Juliet finally stabs herself to death.
As Stoppard’s Shakespeare says to fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, “I love your early work”. Such deliberate anachronisms echo Shakespeare’s own celebrated anachronisms – clocks and spectacles in pre-Roman Britain, for instance.
Typically with Stoppard, none of his witticisms are essential to the overall structure – but they accumulate, they give the thing a shape. As with his stage plays, you sit there bombarded by sly references, puns and allusions. To get them all, you have to read the texts. But you don’t have to get them all – just know that they’re there, part of the overall design.
Designers ought to recognise and sympathise with Stoppard’s craft. It’s dazzling, it’s layered, it builds openly upon received ideas and the work of others, but it nonetheless presents a strong individual identity. Stoppard has been hacking Shakespeare about for all his career – as have other playwrights and poets, from Oscar Wilde to AE Housman – but the end result is always unmistakably Stoppard. One or two of the critics – most notably the wise and lovely Germaine Greer, whose discipline is literature rather than film – pointed out what ought to be obvious even to the blind and illiterate, that this was only what Shakespeare himself did.
We all know what Shakespeare meant when he described the theatre as a separate, independent world. It has to be – it wouldn’t work otherwise. Stoppard, a supremely theatrical writer, has somehow managed to transfer this feeling to film. This is at least partly because the actors found his creation, in all its artificiality, wholly believable. Confined to the Shepperton Studios complex for a whole summer, they became that troupe of wise-cracking, incestuous actors. Dame Judi Dench (as Queen Elizabeth I) loved it so much she bought the entire Rose Theatre set and now wonders what to do with it.
I like the sound of this because what it comes down to is that – in this rare instance – the writer is the chief designer. Stoppard’s piece of hokum makes possible a real fragment of society. It’s outrageous, but it’s credible. It’s camp high comedy, but you weep. It’s only a brand image, yet few people can make us suspend our disbelief so readily. Of course, few film critics – even those who decide it must be clever, so they ought to recommend it – understand what the hell is going on. That’s their loss, not ours.