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Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Boyish Will Shakespeare (Joesph Fiennes, Ralph’s younger brother) pours out his troubles to a 16th-century shrink – the Bard-to-be (or not-to-be if he doesn’t overcome his writer’s block) can’t find the muse to help him finish his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.

His wife is no help. She’s back with the kids in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Enter Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a highborn lady with a yen to act, but since the profession is forbidden to women, Viola dons her best boy-drag, auditions for the role of Romeo, and ends up kissing the playwright (don’t ask) and unblocking all his fluids – bodily and creative.

The devilishly clever script by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman takes rollicking pleasure in twisting historical facts to suit its fancy, and the mischievous wordplay between Will and Viola actually makes literacy seem sexy.

It helps that Gwyneth Paltrow has never looked more radiant or acted with such spirit. She even livens up the stolid Fiennes, who makes Will seem a changed man after one gander at Viola’s nipples.

There are, of course, impediments to love. Will is married, and Viola has been promised to the priggish Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) by Queen Elizabeth herself.

Judi Dench plays the virgin Queen with a wicked comic bite that commands attention.

Geoffrey Rush is uproarious as Philip Henslowe, the theatre owner who encourages Will to pepper his play with action and “a bit with a dog” to please the groundlings.

Ben Affleck (Paltrow’s off-screen love) takes the small role of an ego-bloated thespian and mines it for rich laughs. And Rupert Everett does wonders with an even smaller role as Christopher Marlowe, a rival playwright who nonetheless graciously provides Will with the plot for his Romeo play and urges him to change Ethel’s name to Juliet.

Brush up your Shakespeare and you’ll enjoy the jokes even more, but the film is at its most touching when the group of oddballs puts on the first performance of Romeo and Juliet in the presence of the Queen and everything goes wonderfully right, from the delivery of the prologue by a formerly stuttering tailor (Mark Williams) to Viola’s stepping in at the last minute to play Juliet.

A woman onstage creates a scandal, and the play stirs a revolution.

Will Shakespeare
Joseph Fiennes
Viola De Lesseps
Gwyneth Paltrow
Lord Wessex
Colin Firth
Queen Elizabeth
Judi Dench
Christopher Marlowe
Rupert Everett
Philip Henslowe
Geoffrey Rush
Ned Alleyn
Ben Affleck
Lady De Lesseps
Jill Baker
Sir Robert De Lesseps
Nicholas Le Prevost
Hugh Fennyman
Tom Wilkinson
Steven O’Donnell
Tim McMullan
Makepeace, the Preacher
Steven Beard
Dr Moth
Antony Sher
Will Kempe
Patrick Barlow
Richard Burbage
Martin Clunes
Sandra Reinton
Tilney, Master of the Revels
Simon Callow
Henry Condell
Nicholas Boulton
Barnaby Kay
Ralph Bashford
Jim Carter
Peter, the Stage Manager
Paul Bigley
John Webster
Joe Roberts
Mark Williams
John Hemmings
David Curtiz
James Hemmings
Gregor Truter
Master Plum
Robin Davies
Edward Pope
Timothy Kightley
Augustine Philips
Mark Saban
George Bryan
Bob Barrett
James Armitage
Roger Morlidge
Sam Gosse
Daniel Brocklebank
Imelda Staunton

John Madden