Posted: 05/31/2010


A Waste of Shame


by Jef Burnham

Now available on DVD from BFS Entertainment.

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Originally aired on BBC’s Channel 4, A Waste of Shame is the suppositional story behind the composition of William Shakespeare’s sonnets. It focuses on the Bard’s pseudo-romantic entanglements with the Dark Lady to whom 26 of his 154 sonnets (published in 1609) were addressed, and the Fair Youth to whom another 126 were addressed. While A Waste of Shame may not offer much in the way of plot, it boasts superb art direction and, at its core, a brilliant performance by Rupert Graves.

The story begins with Shakespeare falling for William Herbert (Tom Sturridge), an Earl’s son with the “face of a woman,” who considers Shakespeare his favorite poet and is perpetually pouting his lips. But, finding himself unable to bed/woo the youth, Shakespeare turns his affections to the perhaps more unattainable French/Moorish prostitute named Lucie (Indira Varma). All the while, the plague spreads throughout London, the sickly state of the metropolis’s population mirroring Shakespeare’s growing emotional devastation.

The set design and costuming in A Waste of Shame are as fine as you would see in any such theatrically released piece on the era. Here, the BBC art department brings the late-16th/early-17th Centuries to life in a way that is at least on par with such big budget productions as Shakespeare in Love.

Actually, the only qualm I have with the piece visually has nothing to do with the set and costume designs, but deals with a pretentious and distancing visual effect. Occasionally, as the sonnets are used in the film’s narration (as read by Graves), the film cuts to intertitles featuring portions of the sonnets in floating, animated text as they are read aloud. This is not only wholly unnecessary, but is, in fact, counterproductive to the intensity of the piece, bringing the action to a visual halt. And this becomes increasingly apparent throughout, the more we hear the sonnets laid over Graves’ reactions to onscreen events.

As mentioned at the opening of this review, the narrative is fairly thin; but Graves ably carries the film from titles to credits. Somehow he has slipped under my radar until A Waste of Shame, and that is itself a shame, for he is indeed a revelation. There is a world at work behind his eyes, giving his Shakespeare has a powerful internality to which we are inevitably drawn though he may remain unblinkingly motionless for lengthy passages of time. One could not ask for a more capable performer to carry a character study such as this, and though A Waste of Shame has many other virtues, I could easily recommend this picture based on his performance alone.

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of

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