Shakespeare in Love

This hasn't been a very good season for movies, but last week a most delicious comedy came along that -- if you live in middle America -- you should see quickly before your local distributor pulls the plug. It's 'Shakespeare in Love,' with Ralph Fiennes' kid brother Joseph as the young Shakespeare.

You can take it on any level you want, and you'll go home happy. For instance, there's a running gag through the film that depends on your knowing the difference between Elizabethan playwrights -- Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe -- and the Jacobeans who succeeded them -- Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster and Tourneur. So in the gag, as Shakespeare runs through London on his various missions, either to escape his demanding producer, to chase his mysterious love, or to try and hustle money, he keeps passing a ragged young boy who plays with what appears to be his pet collection of rats. The boy likes theatre, but what he likes best are the stabbings and poisonings he sees. Shakespeare asks him if he's seen his new play, "Romeo and Juliet." "I saw it," he says. "The best part was where she stabbed herself."

"What’s your name?" asks Shakespeare.

"John Webster," says the boy.

Arcane, but just classic if you know that young John was destined to become the great Jacobean playwright of incest, murder, betrayals, and treachery

Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman have given us a marvelous entertainment built on the thesis that in 1594 young Shakespeare, having abandoned Anne Hathaway and their children in Stratford, and begun to make his mark as a playwright in London with the early success of "Two Gentlement of Verona" and "Henry VI," now suffers a paralyzing attack of writer’s block. Although he’s committed to delivering a new play (titled "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter"), he spends his days at the desk trying out new ways to sign his name.

And then – and none too soon – he falls for the beautiful Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow, and why not), and the muse returns with a vengeance. The pages fly from his quill pen, the play drops poor Ethel and the pirate, and becomes "Romeo and Juliet," with Paltrow as his own Juliet, except that Viola is stage-struck herself, and because of Elizabethan prohibitions against women actors she cannot be Juliet on stage, but instead with mustache and goatee is cast as Romeo.

On and on the complications pile up. Viola is given in marriage to a most unappetizing suitor, as Shakespeare and she snatch desperate moments of love and sex, barely escaping the suitor’s wrath. We meet Shakespeare's rival, playwright Christopher Marlowe, who's the toast of London (Rupert Everett), but who is soon to be murdered himself, which brings on an acute attack of the guilts in young Shakespeare. And amid all this the first production of the great romantic tragedy comes together.

The movie, as well as the play within it, is a beautiful piece of work. There's not a soft spot anywhere in the casting, and it has been directed with wit and speed by John Madden, whose last film, "Mrs. Brown," dealt of course with Victorian royalty. The setting of Elizabethan London is well handled; every street runs with mud and muck. People dodge wagons, horses, and garbage thrown from above. The theatres of the day are rendered with accuracy, and they work to enhance the scenes of both the play in progress and the backstage goings-on. As the lead, Fiennes, who was weak and uninteresting in "Elizabeth," is a delight here. He combines a sexy, boyish charm with a believable persona as a writer who knows his own talent. And an especial pleasure is Judi Dench as Elizabeth herself; she is every bit a woman who could both rule the world and sort out a romantic triangle.

Combine 'Shakespeare in Love' with Shekhar Kapur’s "Elizabeth" and you'll come out with a much better understanding of a time that's fascinatingly close to our own.