You can’t miss with a movie that speaks the language of love with such hotblooded delight. And in iambic pentameter, too. Let Barry White top that. There’s boyish Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph’s younger brother) pouring out his troubles to a sixteenth-century shrink: The Bard-to-be (or not-to-be, if he doesn’t overcome his writer’s block) can’t find the muse to help him finish his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. His wife is no help; she’s back with the kids in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Enter Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a highborn lady with a yen to act. Since the profession is forbidden to women, Viola dons her best boydrag, auditions for the role of Romeo, and ends up kissing the play wright (don’t ask) and unblocking all his fluids — bodily and creative.
The devilishly clever script, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, takes rollicking pleasure in twisting historical facts to suit its fancy, and the mischievous wordplay between Will and Viola actually makes literacy seem sexy. You won’t find that kind of miracle at The Waterboy. It helps that Paltrow has never looked more radiant or acted with such spirit. She even livens up the stolid Fiennes, who makes Will seem a changed man after one gander at Viola’s nipples.
There are, of course, impediments to love. Will is married, and Viola has been promised to the priggish Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) by Queen Elizabeth. Judi Dench plays the Virgin Queen with a wicked comic bite that commands attention. Dench rules. But director John Madden, who guided her magisterial turn as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, also spurs a large cast to bust loose hilariously. Geoffrey Rush is uproarious as Philip Henslowe, the theater owner who encourages Will to pepper his play with action and “a bit with a dog” to please the groundlings. Ben Affleck (Paltrow’s off-screen love) takes the small role of an ego-bloated thespian and mines it for rich laughs. And Rupert Everett does wonders with an even smaller role as Christopher Marlowe, a rival playwright who nonetheless graciously provides Will with the plot for his Romeo play and urges him to change Ethel’s name to Juliet.
Brush up your Shakespeare and you’ll enjoy the jokes even more, but the film is at its most touching when this group of oddballs puts on the first performance of Romeo and Juliet in the presence of the queen and everything goes wonderfully right, from the delivery of the prologue by a formerly stuttering tailor (Mark Williams) to Viola’s stepping in at the last minute to play Juliet. A woman onstage creates a scandal, and the play stirs a revolution. Shakespeare in Love is too light a bonbon to match that theatrical storm, but the movie — drunk on words and ravishing romance — spins delicious magic.