The play's the thing

 

The plundering of the literary past by contemporary cinema yields few, if any, more consistently fecund sources than the plays of William Shakespeare. This has been demonstrated time and again in recent years by, most notably, Kenneth Branagh's epic treatment of Hamlet and his sunny, delightful Much Ado About Nothing, along with Richard Loncraine's Richard III, which artfully transposed the play to a Fascist 1930s England, and Baz Luhrmann's radical, vibrant and romantic interpretation of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary American setting.

At the beginning of this decade the playwright Tom Stoppard, in his only outing as a film director, produced his clever, engagingly playful theatrical reconfiguration of Hamlet in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, which propelled two minor characters to the forefront, yet succeeded in remaining true to the spirit of Shakespeare's masterpiece. Stoppard takes such reinvention several stages further in the enchanting and intricately structured romantic comedy Shakespeare In Love, devised by the screenwriter Marc Norman, who shares the screenplay credit with Stoppard. Their imaginatively devised and sustained scenario, set in late 16th-century London, posits the conceit that the 31-year-old Will Shakespeare (played by Joseph Fiennes) is struggling with writer's block and under pressure of a deadline that's two weeks away for the unveiling of his cumbersomely-titled new opus, Romeo And Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter.

Finally, it is love which triggers the muse for the playwright. With his wife Anne Hathaway and her "cold bed" 100 miles away, Will is smitten by the beautiful young theatre lover, Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who comes from a wealthy family. In the best Shakespearean tradition, the path to romance is riddled with obstacles, not least of them Viola's imminent arranged marriage to the imperious Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). However, after she and Will make love for the first time, Viola rhapsodises: "I would not have thought it - there is something better than a play".

To get around the era's strictly imposed ban on women acting in theatre, Viola dons male drag and a false beard to take a role in Shakespeare's play, and the movie plays on contemporary gender-bending as Will and the disguised Viola sneak some passionate kissing backstage.

Sexual role-playing is just one of the modern spins astutely knitted into a screenplay strewn with knowingly anachronistic references to the vanity of actors, the dumbing-down of art to increase its commercial prospects, and the exploitation of actors and writers by offering them profit participation they have no hope of enjoying.

Adding further sparkle to an exuberant, intoxicating cocktail is some keen throwaway humour - as in the boatman who prefigures taxi drivers when he remarks, "I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once." Meanwhile, the screenplay's fictional elements are astutely juxtaposed with the lovingly treated text of Shakespeare's original play. An irresistibly charming entertainment oozing with life and joy, Shakespeare In Love is directed with unshowy assurance and at an invigoratingly brisk pace by John Madden, the English filmmaker who worked extensively in theatre and television before making his film debut with the Edith Wharton adaptation, Ethan Frome, and his movie breakthrough two years ago with Mrs Brown.

The more familiar the audience is with Shakespeare and his period, and with Romeo And Juliet, the more abundant the pleasures to be found in Madden's superb new film; however, such knowledge is by no means a prerequisite to savouring this rich treat. Chief among its delights is the exemplary cast led by Gwyneth Paltrow, glowing in a lovely, natural performance as Viola, and Joseph Fiennes, firmly emerging from the shadow of his brother, Ralph, as Will.

Geoffrey Rush amusingly overplays the debt-ridden, hit-desperate theatre owner, Philip Henslowe; Martin Clunes is his arch-rival, the actor-manager Richard Burbage; Ben Affleck loosens up as a pompous actor who agrees to play Mercutio because he's told it's the central role; an uncredited Rupert Everett is briefly but most effectively featured as Christopher Marlowe, and, joy of joys, the wonderful Judi Dench, who lights up the screen and steals each of her mere four scenes as Queen Elizabeth I.

What a piece of work is this.