As we like it

The buoyant Shakespeare in Love indulges in smart baloney

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). Rehearsing the big fight scene, the guy playing Tybalt gives a labored reading to a line, and Alleyn, who's playing Mercutio, makes a face and says, "Are you going to say it that way?" It's funny because we rarely think of Renaissance actors having to rehearse at all.

The cast of Shakespeare in Love seems well-rehearsed. 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' 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, or even if we could somehow meet the real Shakespeare--the shrewd, prosperous, social-climbing, politically conservative man who comes across from what spare historical record exists. The plays named above seem too protean in viewpoint and too universally accessible to be the work of that guy, or of any one person, which is no doubt why--along with class and academic elitism--so many have tried, so unpersuasively, to attribute them to somebody higher on the social or educational ladder.

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.
Directed by John Madden. Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Simon Callow, Rupert Everett, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, and Joe Roberts. Opens Friday.

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