With “Shakespeare in Love,” director John Madden does for adults what Baz Luhrmann did for teens in “Romeo and Juliet” — he makes Shakespeare accessible , entertaining and fun for modern audiences. Exquisitely acted, tightly directed and impressively assembled, this lively period piece is the kind of arty gem with potentially broad appeal that Miramax certainly knows how to sell. Nevertheless, it helps considerably to know Shakespeare to appreciate this film, a prerequisite that may limit its success.
While the film’s storyline is labyrinthine, its premise is fairly simple: William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has writer’s block and needs a muse to unlock his creative abilities. When he falls for the lovely Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), his passion is released, and his ineptly-titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” becomes “Romeo and Juliet.”
But in true Shakespearean fashion, their romance is hampered by various complications: Viola is betrothed to another, the insufferable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), and that union has been sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench).
Set against the backdrop of London in 1593, pic presents a theatrical community in which Shakespeare is but one of several successful playwrights — including Christoher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene and George Peele. Notoriously competitive with the then better-known Marlowe (“Dr. Faustus”), Shakespeare is striving to find his own creative niche.
Meanwhile, despite theater’s growing popularity, the plague forces the closure of many houses, including the Rose, owned by Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) and the Curtain, run by Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes).
When Shakespeare promises to write a new play, both impresarios vie to mount it, and casting sessions begin, during which, the law decrees, only men may audition.
But Viola, a keen fan of drama and of Shakespeare in particular, is determined to try out for the new play. Disguised as the youth Thomas Kent and acting to perfection, she catches Will’s eye and wins the part of Romeo. Later she presents herself as Viola, and he is smitten. The confusion over sexual identity is expertly played out, and, in a hilarious yet touching scene that echoes “Twelfth Night’s” reverse-gender dynamics, Will confesses to Thomas his love for the youth’s friend Viola. As the guise falls away, their passion heats up.
None of this would be possible — let alone credible — were it not for the impassioned acting of Paltrow and Fiennes. Paltrow, who demonstrated her capacity for period British roles in “Emma,” has a luminosity that makes Viola irresistible. In goatee and boy’s wig as Thomas, she cuts an equally appealing figure.
And Fiennes gives brother Ralph a run for his money. The RSC-trained actor endows Will Shakespeare with a likable humanity and romantic charm that, coupled with his good looks, make him ideally suited for the role.
The supporting cast is a dream, filling out a potpourri of character parts with undiluted strength. Rush, who gets some of the catchiest quips, is sympathetic and funny. As the smarmy Wessex, Firth is hateful without overdoing his part.
The unassailable Dench, meanwhile, plays Elizabeth with gusto: She provides a brilliantly wry counterpoint to her last monarch, Victoria, in Madden’s own “Mrs. Brown.” In an uncredited role, Rupert Everett is memorable as Marlowe. And Ben Affleck, as the arrogant thesp Ned Alleyn, does some of his very best work, suggesting that comedy may be his true calling.
The combination of Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard on the script has produced a lovely and seamless result. Stoppard, whose neo-classic “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” made Shakespeare newly accessible, is credited with fleshing out the supporting characters.
Madden keeps his cast together with the skill of a veteran, finding opportunities to let almost every actor shine. If there is any flaw here, it might be that with so many fine actors, there aren’t always enough great lines to go around.
On the technical front, all aspects are outstanding, with the money behind this Miramax-Universal coproduction quite evident onscreen. Richard Greatrex’s lensing lends a refreshingly contempo feel to the proceedings.
David Gamble’s editing is deft and effective, especially in stretches that cross-cut between the rehearsals of the play-within-the-film and the “real” lovers’ romantic trysts. Sandy Powell’s impressive costumes and Lisa Westcott’s make-up show the Elizabethan era to its best advantage.