Approaching its 20th anniversary, Shakespeare in Love remains gloriously romantic and literate. Directed by John Madden, with screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard weaving Elizabethan theatre history and enduring gossip into a dreamy conceit, the Bard’s early writing years become a comedy about writer’s block unleashed by the power of adulterous love. For the first and still only time in movies, audiences can plausibly “feel” the world’s most gifted dramatist bursting with creativity: what an exciting stroke of shrewdness to mesh the development of Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter with the loves of Will. Even if, of course, he would never see any women play his female characters. This fancy has at its center a bodacious Shakespeare in Joseph Fiennes, whose looks suggest a 16th century metrosexual; with his saucy trespasses, this pretty boy, all agog, with energized swagger, colossal eros and ink-stained fingernails, exudes temptation and we willfully cede carte blanche. Gwyneth Paltrow won prizes as the fictitious inspiration for Juliet and Twelfth Night’s Viola, but had she not a co-star so lustfully engaging, who knows what fate would have beset her? She does, however, handle English accentuation ala Mia Farrow with decent efficiency. (After A Perfect Murder, Hush and a few other duds, including Madden’s Proof, one is tempted to repeat Sandra Bernhard’s comment to Tim Curry on Roseanne: “Stay foreign, it works for you.”) What she and Fiennes accomplish together in vocalizing the hammy poetic lingo of Romeo and Juliet is miraculous, dually serving the ample passions and laments. There’s no lessening of its effectiveness—this abbreviated version of the play is incontestably moviedom’s most satisfying.  

Similar to the periodic skirmishes caused by detractors claiming Shakespeare didn’t write much of his work, which is the subject of Roland Emmerich’s appalling Anonymous, it’s become de rigueur among cineastes to debate the worthiness of Shakespeare in Love. The bickering centers on two issues—whether it deserved to win roughly 50 awards, including Oscars for best picture and actress, and if the overview of the period is factual. For the former a resounding yes: romanticism is the antidote apothecaries prescribe to overcome the damage wrought by cyclical cynicism. The latter query is answered by the movie’s smart functionality reflecting myriad detailing and implicit attachments. Madden, Norman and Stoppard take us to the Bard’s writing table at which he prepares his goose feather quills—correctly stripped down—and dips them into an ink likely from “oak apples,” lumpy deposits on the trees caused by insects, and writes in secretary hand on papyrus. (Imagine the cramps he nursed.) Befitting lifts from his sonnets, dialogue from other plays and convenient wish fulfillments are interpolated by personages who abound throughout: Judi Dench’s trenchant Elizabeth I; Rupert Everett’s Christopher Marlowe; Ben Affleck’s Ned Alleyn (England’s first superstar actor?); Martin Clunes’s Richard Burbage, for whom Shakespeare wrote Richard III, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear; Geoffrey Rush as The Rose theatre owner Philip Henslowe; and Joe Roberts as a young mischievous John Webster, who’d later become the era’s Jacobean dark sider. Production designer Martin Childs, set decorator Jill Quertier, and photographer Richard Greatrex give London and the theatres infectiously teeming atmospheres and costumer Sandy Powell dresses the royals in comical fancy schmancy getups and the plebs in soiled shirts, hose, codpieces, doublets, sleeves and breeches virtually smelling of sweat and vino.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 7/2017) All Rights Reserved.