Buoyant Bard

Smart Shakespeare In Love treads lightly into romantic comedy

This theatrical backdrop is the best element of the film. It probably could be said to save the picture, actually; without all the color and texture that the Rose Theater and its habitues provide, Shakespeare In Love would be little more than The Bridges of Madison County in Renaissance drag. As a love story it's conventional, but as a lighthearted show-biz story it's a blast.

Norman and Stoppard even allow themselves some fairly broad gags, placing cliches of the modern theater in an Elizabethan context. Ferrymen on the Thames behave like New York City cabbies, and a waiter at a tavern describes that day's special to his table (no doubt he's really an actor).

Paltrow does heartfelt work in her third turn as a Brit, following Emma and Sliding Doors. She's uncommonly good at being heartbroken, the Renaissance clothes look astounding on her, and she's not bad at all in the passages of Romeo and Juliet she gets to do.

My favorite performance in Shakespeare In Love, however, belongs to Rush. His shaggy-haired, yellow-toothed Henslowe, who philosophically accepts the constant disasters of theater life, is absurdly endearing, like an Elizabethan Fozzy Bear.

Not surprisingly, Fiennes's performance is the most problematic. Can we really believe that the soaring yet lucid poetry, the stirring, overflowing emotion of Othello or King Lear or The Tempest could have come out of this boy-ingenue? Of course not. Yet I doubt it would seem any more convincing no matter how he was portrayed.

Much to its credit, Shakespeare In Love doesn't take itself seriously. But if there's nothing very imaginative about the film's portrait of Shakespeare, there's nothing terribly implausible about it, either. These filmmakers have taken a historical figure and made him into a hot-blooded romantic hero. Shakespeare did that a time or two himself.

Shakespeare In Love.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by John Madden. With Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Simon Callow, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench and Joe Roberts. Rated R.Down in the Delta. Directed by Maya Angelou. With Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Mary Alice, Mpho Koaho and Wesley Snipes.

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