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Weekly Alibi Shakespeare in Love

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 4, 1999:  Apparently, not much is known about the day-to-day life of one William Shakespeare. Although he remains one of the most famous writers of all time, all we know for sure is that he once paid 50 pounds to join the Chamberlain's Men theatrical troupe and in his will left his second best bed to his wife. Even the authorship of Shakespeare's most famous comedies and tragedies remains a subject of academic debate. So why not, thought a bunch of irreverent British filmmakers, cast the revered literary icon as a lovelorn, cash-strapped scribbler romancing and conning his way through Elizabethan London society while nursing a world-class case of writer's block?

Shakespeare in Love is a thoroughly unexpected period parody from director John Madden (who honed his historical chops with last year's Mrs. Brown). Madden works off an inspired script by American screenwriter Marc Norman (Cutthroat Island, Waterworld) and British playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead)--which should give you some idea how schizophrenic the resultant strip of celluloid is.

Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's hunky little bro) stars as young Will the Shake, a workaday hack who's suffering some severe artistic constipation on his newest effort, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. Having already sold the (as yet unwritten) play to two different theaters in Londontown, our Shakespeare finds himself searching for a muse to unblock his creative process. That muse arrives in the form of lovely, young Viola De Lesseps (lovely, young Gwyneth Paltrow--who, if she keeps up these Brit gigs, will make people forget she's actually an American actress). Unfortunately, Viola has already (against her will) promised her hand in marriage to the weasely Earl of Wessex (Colin Firth). Although societal constraints prevent her from getting involved with the randy theater man, Viola finds herself enamored with Shakespeare's romantic writings. Disguising herself as a boy in order to audition for a role in Shakespeare's (still unwritten) opus, Viola sets the stage for all kinds of theatrical misunderstandings, sexual roundelays and good old-fashioned slapstick antics.

Part swooning romance, part theatrical farce, Shake-speare in Love balances its pretty leading actors with a treasure chest of colorful supporting characters. Geoffrey Rush (who last ran into Joseph Fiennes in Elizabeth) appears as the buffoonish Philip Henslowe, owner of the faltering Rose theater. Hounded by both angry creditors and a censorship-happy Master of Revels, Henslowe is desperate for Shakespeare's newest comedy (which he helpfully insists should include a funny dog act). American actor Ben Affleck (Good Will Hunting) crosses the big pond to portray egotistical actor Ned Alleyn with just the right touch of Hollywood bluster. Top comic honors, though, go to Tom Wilkinson (still in top form after The Full Monty), who lets his talents run wild as Fennyman, a vicious moneylender who hilariously transforms into the world's first Broadway producer. In addition to their wonderful comic touches, each thespian gets to sink his or her teeth into some solid Shakespearean acting. When Shakespeare's complete play (eventually dubbed Romeo and Juliet) makes it to the stage, we get to see it performed in powerful, reverent bits.

True theater buffs are most likely to be amused by the wealth of puns and Shakespearean in-jokes on display here. Character names, significant plot points and snippets of monologues from assorted Shakespeare plays are sprinkled throughout the film (allowing our harried writer to "borrow" them for his own use). Assorted real-life superstars (Queen Elizabeth, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster) float through the free-association environs of Shakespeare in Love like some twisted Elizabethan version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

If you aren't an Anglophile, though, do not despair. In the end, any filmgoers--even those who don't know their Shakespeare from their Tennessee Williams--will find enjoyment in this film's hilarious script, exciting acting and teary-eyed romance.

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