It seems as if the film industry has taken a Noah's-ark approach over the past year, releasing similarly themed films to theaters two-by-two. Twin projects -- about asteroids, animated ants, World War II combat, even the runner Steve Prefontaine -- are appearing with alarming regularity on the big screen.
"Shakespeare in Love" shares with the previously released "Elizabeth" not only a time and place -- England in the late 1500s -- but also two lead actors, Joseph Fiennes and Geoffrey Rush. Yet where "Elizabeth" was dark and deep, "Shakespeare" is a light romantic comedy -- one that offers considerably more engaging performances.
This speculative vision of the Bard's early life directed by John Madden (Mrs. Brown) posits Shakespeare as a sharp pretty boy, blessed with finely sculptured features and piercing blue eyes that are always roving. Fiennes imbues the role with all the grace, intelligence, bravado and charming good humor it deserves. He's burdened by too many women on his mind, writer's block and failure to perform in bed. "It's as if my quill has broken," he complains to his therapist.
The artist's intellectual and sexual crisis is manifested by his inability to finish a new play, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." That delay means disastrous consequences for Philip Henslowe (a riotous Rush), the self-deprecating, incompetent owner of the Rose Theater. Henslowe needs a crowd pleaser, and quick, before he's literally burned by his creditors.
A muse arrives in the form of the willowy, thoroughly enchanting Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a lovely heiress engaged against her will to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a bragging creep set on taking her to a tobacco farm in Virginia. Paltrow, every bit the perfect match for Fiennes, gives us a reason to pay attention to her again after rather routine turns in "A Perfect Murder" and "Sliding Doors."
As fate would have it, Viola is a closet thespian. After spying Shakespeare at the royal court she masquerades as a man (women weren't allowed on the stage) in order to audition for his new play. The two soon meet, thanks in part to a chase sequence that has the young writer commanding a sailor to "follow that boat" and savor the few days left before Viola's wedding.
Bits of their romance inevitably leap from real life to the stage; the two screenwriters, Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard, make terrifically imaginative connections between ongoing events and the plays that will later spring from Shakespeare's pen. The climax, with newly married Viola showing up at the last minute to play Juliet to her lover's Romeo in front of a packed house, is a model of expert timing and cinematic construction -- one that old even old Bill would admire.