Song of Songs

Who would dispute that William Shakespeare is the brightest gem in that English treasure trove? John Madden's smart, funny, delightful Shakespeare in Love takes the Bard off his pedestal and makes him deliciously human. In fact, there he is, running through crowded London streets, chasing the woman he has just recognized as his soulmate and true love. When a friend scoffs at his idea of love, Will replies, "How could you, who lack a soul, understand the emptiness of not having a soulmate?" Will falls in love with his lady as he listens to her reading his lines. The lady is already head-over-heels about Will's poetry. And the poet, the man? That's an easy step -- and an easy climb into a high, soft, voluptuously belinened billow of a bed that puts bodice-rippers to shame. There two beautiful people begin with words and end with love's wordless delirium. Later, the lady admits astonishment: There is something even better than his poetry.

Two beautiful, talented young stars play the lovers. Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's younger brother) has the title role, and Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Viola De Lesseps, a purely fictional creation. These two make magic, separately and together. Paltrow was a great Emma, but Viola calls for maturity, self-possession and passion; Paltrow gives all with warmth, confidence and style. Fiennes' Will Shakespeare lacks sophistication by contrast, but he is so intensely alive! Fiennes' electric performance demonstrates how writers/artists can live a sort of double life.

These two great young stars aside, Shakespeare in Love enjoys the benefits of experience. A seasoned director for stage and screen, Madden most recently made Oscar-nominated Mrs. Brown. Most notable behind the camera are the screenwriters: co-producer Marc Norman and famous English playwright Tom Stoppard, whose screen works include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Empire of the Sun. The script blends wordplay, swordplay, sex-play, characters and action into an intoxicating potion of joy.

And the cast! Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Simon Callow make juicy parts almost burst. A good time is had by all -- and it's contagious. Some characters are based on historical personages, including Queen Elizabeth I, whom Judi Dench makes a whip-smart, earthy lover of the theater. Ben Affleck plays Ned Alleyn, regular actor and friend of W.S. Reigning playwright Christopher Marlowe appears, intimidating W.S. with the greatness of Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine. A dour boy named John Webster hangs around the theater; he will grow up to write The Duchess of Malfi. Colin Firth plays Viola's father, Lord Wessex, fictional lord of a fictional county. Wessex is a double fiction -- and a joke -- because Thomas Hardy created it for his novels four centuries later.

English majors and other Anglophiles will obviously be in ecstasy throughout Shakespeare in Love because it plays so knowingly and well in beloved territory. Here is a case where a literary background allows the reader to enjoy a rich and multilayered experience -- and to get all the jokes. However, innocence should also find ecstasy. Hearing "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" for the first time in this film's context would be a fabulous experience -- and how bad could it be to watch Fiennes and Paltrow in love for two hours? Then there's the color and vitality of Elizabethan London, the gorgeous costumes and -- most of all -- the film's infectious sense of fun.

In other films I might object to a mix of history and fiction, or to borrowings from future periods. I did object to the pretentious Elizabeth, a potentially great film ruined by stupidity. Though it takes a few liberties with relative ages of historical characters, Shakespeare in Love never introduces an historical character who was not actually alive circa 1597. This is simply a better film than Elizabeth, a film made by people who do not make clumsy mistakes. Its tone is consistently light, delicate and playful, which permits great latitude. After all, this film is less about history than about literature, love and the magic they create together.

Shakespeare in Love is also about the theater. The filmmakers lovingly and knowingly recreated the Wooden O: round theaters made entirely of rough wood. An unrepentant English major, I admit that the first inside shots brought tears to my eyes. In the spirit of magical creations made of words, Shakespeare in Love shows W.S. writing Romeo and Juliet out of his love for/with Viola -- who will later become the loving/beloved heroine of Twelfth Night. The film movingly portrays how an exuberant mind and passionate heart might have created plays and poems as powerful, in their way, as the Roman Empire. Magic happens in acting, too. This intensely visual film creates a lush, earthy beauty that feels magical with no sense of the ethereal. As one of W.S.'s sonnets asserts of his beloved, "When she walks, treads on the ground." My memory is as rich with the film's images as with its words -- not to mention all the jokes and funny scenes.

Enough. William Shakespeare's and Tom Stoppard's words are better than mine. What a glorious film to see twice over the holidays. Seeing Fiennes and Paltrow is next-best to being in love oneself -- and that's only the beginning of what the shamanic filmmakers conjure. Shakespeare in Love is a treasure, a banquet, a joyful salute to life, love and art. This is the true Christmas movie in town: a story of God's gifts and of the art and beauty people give back in grateful celebration. Rejoice!

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