Effortlessly fusing the slyly clever, the broadly comical and the hopelessly romantic, John Madden's follow-up to Mrs. Brown tinkers with history, art and the love-life of Britain's most celebrated playwright to delicious effect. Art imitates life, life imitates art, life takes art outside for a good kicking and art gives as good as he gets. This is postmodernism without the ponce, period drama without the pomposity.
In 1590, as the world of theatre struggles to gain respect, an egocentric Will Shakespeare (Fiennes) hits the plague of writer's block, unable to realise his latest comedy Romeo And Ethel The Pirate's Daughter (you can see where we're coming from) without a new romantic muse. Amid a hasty and rather uneven first half-hour, a curious courtship begins between theatre-loving noblewoman Viola Le Dessaps (Paltrow) and the smitten Bard. Naturally, the path to true-love will be fraught with mishap, social dudgeon and bad timing. This is, after all, Shakespeare.
Circling this problematical love story spin a catalogue of subplots. Stuck-up buffoon Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) buys Viola's hand in marriage. Rival theatre companies vie for Shakespeare's unfinished play, while he vies with arch-rival playwright Christopher Marlowe (an underused Rupert Everett). And the company of actors - shaped from the familiar mugs of British moviedom and members of The Fast Show - strain to pull the play into shape with all the spirited bluster of a show-must-go-on 40s-era Hollywood number.
The jocular script, imprinted with Stoppard's familiar gamesmanship, is a fabulous thing and under the assured care of Madden's direction grants the movie a delightful literary playfulness; Shakespeare and Viola's burgeoning romance deliberately reflecting that of Romeo and Juliet growing inside the head of the love-struck writer; numerous references to Shakespeare's other plays (try, at least, Two Gentlemen Of Verona, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, The Tempest and Titus Andronicus) dotting the action; the presence of Gothic playwright John Webster as a gore-hungry street urchin. There's even an attempt to resolve Marlowe's mysterious murder. There are various themes - sexual liberation, feminism, artistic freedom, the nobility of acting and the power of theatre - plus two duels, some arty sex, cross-dressing, and a genuine sense of Elizabethan life without endless schlopping about in mud and starving peasants.
More subtle still is a parody of Hollywood's many lunacies with pompous actors grabbing bogus percentages, an endless list of credits topping the flyers for the play, even a Thames boat-cabby who fancies himself as a writer.
But Shakespeare In Love's clever-cleverness doesn't alienate; the lavish production, superlative array of supporting characters (in-joke Ben Affleck does a fabulous 16th century luvvie) and triumphant final third make it, surprisingly, the crowd-pleaser of the season. The central romance may not
ring as true as that of Shakespeare's own work - while Fiennes has never been better, Paltrow frequently seems out of her depth - but this is a great success, bawdy, silly, handsome, brainy and energetic, which says more about that bloke from Stratford than any smarty-pants lecturer could hope for.