Rated R - Running time: 2:02 - Released 12/25/98

We are all familiar on some level with the man commonly regarded as the greatest playwright in history, William Shakespeare. There has been no end to speculation among scholars about what might have influenced him to write his famous works. But since he didn’t write as much about his own daily life as about that of Hamlet, Macbeth, or Richard III, we really have little information to go on. That’s why John Madden’s Shakespeare In Love is such a delightful peek into the possible events and experiences that would lead the Bard to craft one of his greatest creations. It’s a portrait of the artist, if you will — a fleshing out of the man behind so many memorable characters.

But the premise of Shakespeare In Love is not its only asset, not by a longshot. With an excellent cast, a screenplay sprinkled with equal parts humor and pathos, and energetic direction (not to mention beautiful sets and costumes), the film is thoroughly delightful in every respect. Madden, who directed last year’s impeccable Mrs. Brown, has again turned out a period piece that will appeal to all, not just stuffy professors of literature and theatre history. Penned by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, and dipping deeply from Shakespeare's own well of dialogue, the plot is constructed much like one of the plays written by its main character. It is loaded with subtle references to his style and clever inferences about the origins of famous lines.

Joseph Fiennes plays young Will Shakespeare, who, in 1593 London, has not yet achieved the fame and respect he is now afforded. He is struggling with writer’s block while the owner of the Rose theatre, Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), is putting pressure on him to write the new comedy he promised, “Romeo and Ethel.” After listlessly scribbling out a few pages, Will holds tryouts, but is unimpressed by any of the town’s potential actors. Then a new boy comes onto the stage and reads with such feeling that Will sits up and takes notice. As in many of the Bard’s plays, it is actually a woman in boy’s clothes who stands on the stage. It is Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a noblelady who has been a fan of Will’s words for years, and who seems to capture them so eloquently, it's as if she wrote them herself. But since women were not allowed to appear in theatre in those days, she must masquerade as a man to be considered for a part.

Will soon discovers Viola's secret, but he is so enchanted he hires her to play Romeo anyway. As the two become romantically entangled, the play flows effortlessly from his pen; the love scenes acted out in her bedroom are reiterated on the stage the next day. This is a particularly ingenious sequence in the movie, with quick editing between the couples' love scenes and the rehearsal scenes, where Viola wears a short, boy's wig and facial hair. But as events proceed and real life steps in, the newly renamed Romeo And Juliet changes from comedy to tragedy.

Paltrow and Fiennes give lusciously romantic and powerful performances here; Paltrow's gender-switching is a difficult order and she pulls it off without a hitch. Rush is excellent as the affable theatre owner who still thinks he's getting a comedy until opening night. Also on board are Judi Dench as an icily regal Queen Elizabeth (she played Queen Victoria last year in Mrs. Brown), Ben Affleck as Will's actor friend who plays Mercutio in the play, and Colin Firth as the unamused Lord Wessex, who intends to make Viola his own.

Writers Norman and Stoppard have turned out a piece worthy of its subject, and director Madden has not failed in transferring their vision to the screen. Shakespeare In Love is funny, tragic, romantic . . . I love it; should I count the ways? *****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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