"Shakespeare in Love" provides the literary set with its own "Something About Mary," a bonehead comedy for eggheads that manages to be smart and funny even at its most trivial.
Exuberant and lovely to look at, this romp will provide an interlude of pure fun for film goers who don't mind taking their Shakespeare with a dash of irreverence and even outrageousness.
As in the best of the Bard's plays, there is plenty of swordplay, intrigue and semantic derring-do in "Shakespeare in Love." Moreover, there is plenty of eye-catching glamour and soulful romance, making this the ideal date movie for wordsmiths, theater fans, history buffs, young people (hey, it's got Ben Affleck) and romantics of every stripe.
Of course, you must first buy the film's conceit. The setting is London in 1593, when two theaters, the Rose and the Curtain, are duking it out for audiences. The key to putting rear-ends in seats, as one observer notes, is romantic comedy. "Love and a bit with a dog, that's what they want."
Enter Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), in the throes of a vicious writer's block. Following orders to turn in a romantic comedy, he is dutifully working on his next play -- "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter" ("There's this pirate ..."), but it just won't come. Then in court one day, while in audience with Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench), Will spies a gorgeous creature across the crowded room. She is Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), of porcelain complexion and swan-like neck. And, alas, she is betrothed to another.
Will and Viola eventually meet, and their forbidden love (Will has his own entanglements back in Stratford-Upon-Avon) inspires a brand new play. Forget "Romeo and Ethel"! Tragedy (thy name is Juliet) is the thing! Will's quill begins to quiver, even while Viola, unbeknown to him, fulfills her lifelong dream of becoming an actor by impersonating a boy and auditioning for Romeo.
"Shakespeare in Love" crackles with the in-jokey brilliance that we associate with the playwright Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the movie with Marc Norman. And you don't have to be a Shakespeare scholar to appreciate this movie's wit and easygoing references to the entertainment world today. Director John Madden ("Mrs. Brown") handles the mash of history and fancy of "Shakespeare in Love" with great finesse, and the actors all play it straight, which helps the comedy enormously.
Anybody as magnificent-looking as Paltrow shouldn't be so talented, but there you are: She's sheer bliss. Fiennes is all brooding self-obsession as the dark-browed Will. Affleck nearly steals the show-within-a-show as the hammy actor Ned Alleyn. Geoffrey Rush, in his first good role since "Shine," is suitably hilarious as Rose owner Philip Henslowe, who sums up centuries of the show-biz life quite well as "insurmountable obstacles on the road to disaster."
But even as Stoppard and Norman wink and nod to the audience (Viola's Virginia-bound fiance predicts that "there's a future in tobacco"), their playful celebration of the theater and the English language is what drives "Shakespeare in Love." When "Romeo and Juliet" is finally performed on stage, the audience gasps in wonder and amazement, and we too are returned to the thrill of seeing great art for the first time.
The movie's final sequence, in which Will begins his next play ("Something more cheerful next time, for twelfth night," Elizabeth tells him), may very well bring tears to the eyes of anyone who loves language, longing and love itself. And if you throw in a bit with a dog, who doesn't?
'Shakespeare in Love'
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench
Directed by John Madden
Rated R (sexuality)
Running time 113 minutes
Released by Miramax Films
Sun score ****
Pub Date: 12/25/98