Shakespeare In Love has been a long time coming. Originally it was to be made in 1991 as a Julia Roberts vehicle, with Daniel Day Lewis touted as her co-star. If anything, the talent here are even better suited: Gwyneth Paltrow, once more demonstrates her impeccable English accent, proving an inspired casting choice as romantic Viola; while rising star Joseph Fiennes is perfect as Shakespeare, a rising star of his olde worlde times. They're surrounded by spectacular support, relishing the chance to ham it up in a broad costume comedy, from familiar mugs on TV's The Fast Show, to award-winning stage and screen actors. Ben Affleck is a revelation as a pompous, again impeccably accented, big star of his day. Judi Dench is equally delicious as the sharp-tongued monarch.
The only fictional creations here are Viola and Wessex, his wordsmith rival. The story is set in 1593, when Shakespeare was a struggling playwright in London. By then he had already married Anne Hathaway, had three children, and been packed off to London to earn his fortune. Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), then considered the greatest playwright of his age. Both Alleyn and Burbage were well-known actors while Queen Elizabeth I, now late in her reign, helped popularise the playhouses with her patronage of acting companies.
Some jokes will simply pass over the heads of people who don't know at least this much. For instance, when teen street boy John Webster professes his love of the more gorier theatre scenes, it's funnier if you know that 10 years on, he was writing blood-filled tragedies like The White Devil. Also, as Shakespeare tours 16th-century London he hears snatches of lines: we see him taking note, aware he'll use them later in his plays.
But the reason that this film is so successful is because it works on many levels. The romance between Viola and Will is touching, convincing and doomed to failure; he is already married, she is promised to Lord Wessex. The bawdy tavern jokes, the boatman making taxi-driver type comments, and the cutting put-downs of Queen Elizabeth are funny without explanation. The settings are faultless: the streets of London have been recreated and filled with street hawkers, urchins and actors, contrasting with the landscaped grounds of the mansions and opulent wardrobe of the gentry. Ever wanted an entertaining history lesson? It's here in detail, from the grooming tools used to clean ears to the effect of the plague on the theatres.
But above all it's very funny, hugely entertaining and, if you know your Shakespeare, extremely clever and logical. The story makes both historical and dramatic sense: before Romeo & Juliet (for that is what Romeo & Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter becomes during the story), Shakespeare was an average writer borrowing heavily from Marlowe. The idea of a doomed romance inspiring him doesn't seem far fetched, especially when it's as well executed as it is here.