WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Young Cameron is in love with Bianca Stratford, but Bianca only appears to have eyes for the arrogant and vain Joey. Their affections are irrelevant, anyway, as Bianca’s father refuses to let her date unless sister Kat also has a date. A plan to bribe hard-nut Patrick Verona to take on the job appears doomed to failure, but Kat may not be the hard-hearted shrew she is painted. Or if she is, she has good reason for it.
A lot has happened to Shakespeare over the years. He’s been sanitised, sanctified, set to music, and Hollywood has done just about everything to just about every one of his plays. And now, indignity of indignities, Gil Junger comes along and wedges The Taming of the Shrew into a high school comedy. Can you think of anything worse?
Fortunately, 10 Things I Hate About You could have been a lot worse. Taking place in Padua High School, it acknowledges its Shakespearean set-up with a number of small nods towards the bard, whilst being resolutely modern in its script and setting – I don’t remember the party or prom scenes in the original Folio Text, for example. The script is sharp, snippy and makes light of the incongruities between the original story and the complications of high school society as it follows Cameron’s pursuit of the fair Bianca, thwarted by rival Joey and the machinations of Bianca’s uptight gynaecologist father, who is only too keen to remind both his daughters of how easy it is to get pregnant: he makes them wear a pregnancy suit before venturing out.
The other daughter, Kat, described (in very un-Shakespearean terms) as a “heinous bitch,” initially appears as a man-hater, a shrew with a sharp word for everyone, but as the story progresses we begin to understand the reasons why she acts as she does. With a little manipulation from Cameron’s friend Michael, Joey is persuaded to bribe notorious Australian student Patrick to date Kat, to release Bianca from her father’s restrictions. Although Kat and Pat appear to be well-matched, it is only a matter of time before the truth comes to light.
With a couple of rude jokes, a soundtrack loaded to the gills with energetic pop, and the obligatory boozy party/prom scenes, 10 Things I Hate About You could easily be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill comedy along the lines of She’s All That (adapted from a G B Shaw play) or Get Over It (borrowing heavily from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Most of the performances are adequate: Larisa Oleynik is perky as Bianca, Andrew Keegan convincingly repellent as teen model Joey; and although Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty colourless and boyish as Cameron, he is fine, and comic sidekick Michael (David Krumholtz) adds a lot of fun to the film, annoying but not irredeemably geeky.
The adult cast are enthusiastic, most notably Larry Miller as the girls’ father, hovering between overwrought concern and genuine madness; and Daryl Mitchell, playing Kat’s sarcastic English teacher. Allison Janney is also entertaining as Ms Perky, the school counsellor writing a salacious novel.
Much of the praise for lifting the film above the ordinary must go to Julia Stiles. Not only is she unconventional in appearance in the role of Kat, she brings to it an unexpected amount of complexity, as it becomes clear that the motivation for her actions is her ill-use at Joey’s hands in the past. She is sparky without being unpleasant, and when she finally reads out her ’10 things…’ poem, it is a very touching moment. Our investment in Kat adds a level of depth to the film.
Opposite Stiles, Heath Ledger as Patrick is a worthy opponent. Of course, it’s easy to over-praise anything featuring Ledger due to the tragic nature of his death, and in truth he’s not asked to do anything spectacular here, but he does show plenty of natural charm, not least in his performance of You’re Just too Good to be True to the accompaniment of a marching band. It’s worth mentioning in passing that the idea of a self-confident 18-year old taking advice from nerdy kids sounds a bit unlikely, but the film makes light of it, and the evolution of Patrick from doing it for the money into doing it for love is subtly handled.
A common phrase to describe something of dubious artistic worth is “It’s not Shakespeare.” Well, this is Shakespeare, sort of, and it’s still not a piece of cinema that is likely to get people talking in 40 years’ time, let alone 400. Nonetheless, with the Bard’s help, 10 Things I Hate About You has characters and performances which lift it above the majority of its high school rivals towards the top of the class.