December 11, 1998| To paraphrase the Bard of Avon himself: Shakespeare in Love is a hit, a palpable hit. At once passionately romantic and exuberantly clever, the movie imagines a William Shakespeare who's beset by writer's block, a wealthy beauty who becomes his backstage muse and on-stage star -- and a behind-the-scenes scramble to mount Shakespeare's latest effort, a promising new play titled Romeo and Juliet.
When we first meet the rakish young Will (the intensely hunky Joseph Fiennes), he's barely past the title page of a long-overdue work-in-progress, a none-too-promising extravaganza known as Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter. The play's the thing that may save Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), an improvident theatrical impresario, from financial ruin. But while Henslowe anxiously awaits the deliverance of a crowd-pleasing comedy, Will dawdles and doodles.
Enter Viola De Lesseps (the radiant Gwyneth Paltrow), the audacious daughter of a social-climbing merchant. Despite rigid laws that forbid women from appearing on stage, Viola is determined to land a role in the latest play by her favorite playwright. So she disguises herself as a man -- no mean trick, but never mind -- and auditions at Henslowe's theater. Will is impressed enough to cast the attractive newcomer as Romeo. But once he sees through her disguise, and begins to spend his evenings in her bedchamber, complications arise. The most pressing problem: Viola is engaged to marry the insufferable Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), an impoverished nobleman who'll provide a title for his bride in exchange for a handsome dowry.
One thing leads to another, disguises and deceptions are employed, real-life events are recycled as incidents in the newly re-titled Romeo and Juliet. Ultimately, it takes no less an authority than Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) to sort things out on opening night.
Working from a gracefully witty screenplay co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard (who brought his own twist to Shakespeare in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), director John Madden offers a wonderfully entertaining confection that brings out the very best in everyone involved. Of course, to fully savor its many and varied pleasures, it helps to know a bit about Shakespeare in general and Romeo and Juliet in particular. But just as Will wrote for the mass audience of his era, Shakespeare in Love is designed to please even those ticketbuyers who wouldn't know Twelfth Night from Troilus and Cressida. Get thee to a multiplex, and enjoy!