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Friday, December 25, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Christmas Day Blitz -- Tragically Endearing -- Strong Performances Make This Silly Version Of Young Shakespeare's Life Enjoyable

Seattle Times Movie Reviewer

------------ Movie review ------------

XXX "Shakespeare in Love," with Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench. Directed by John Madden, from a script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. 122 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted because of love scenes.

A triumph of talent and style over silliness, "Shakespeare in Love" imagines a personal life for William Shakespeare that's at least as suspect as the creative license used for the Moses character in "Prince of Egypt."

Both movies fill in the blanks in the historical record by creating a young, dashing, devilishly attractive movie-star figure who may or may not be much like the person whose name he's been given. "Shakespeare in Love" adds a level of cuteness and whimsy that can be taxing.

Still, if it's literate, romantic, self-assured entertainment you're in the market for, there aren't many options this season. And who could have guessed, on the basis of last year's rather stodgy "Mrs. Brown," that that film's director, John Madden, could make such a cinematically fluid piece from such dicey material?

"Shakespeare in Love" began nearly a decade ago with an idea by Marc Norman and his college-age son, Zachary, who agreed there might be a movie in the story of the young Will Shakespeare. Marc Norman wrote the script, and then Tom Stoppard, who turned "Hamlet" upside down with his play, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," did a rewrite.

The result: an inevitably in-jokey account of how Will (Joseph Fiennes) overcomes writer's block on a play called "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." In the process, he loses his professional jealousy of competing playwright Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), attracts the attention of Queen Elizabeth (the wonderful Judi Dench), and falls in love with Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a budding actress who gradually becomes the muse who inspires him to write "Romeo and Juliet."

In the process, a great many rules are broken, including Viola's performance on what was then an all-male stage. True, she goes to her audition disguised as a man, Thomas Kent, and quickly wins the part of Romeo. But the gender-bending doesn't last long, even if it does suggest to Will the plot of a new play that will feature a sexually ambiguous character named Viola.

Paltrow truly blossoms in this role. Her love scenes with Fiennes are giddy and passionate, and somehow she's just as lively when Viola is registering her lack of interest in Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), the obnoxious man she's scheduled to marry. Fiennes does his best film work to date, easily eclipsing his performance as the young Elizabeth's lover in "Elizabeth." Also making his strongest impression yet is Ben Affleck, who reveals an unexpected gift for broad comedy.

It's easy to enjoy "Shakespeare in Love"; it's also easy to overrate it. A number of very talented people have clearly been inspired to do some of their best work, including production designer Martin Childs, costumer Sandy Powell, cinematographer Richard Greatrex and editor David Gamble. They've turned this picture into something better than it had any right to be.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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