December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s 1593, and William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), a charming, if slightly frazzled, young actor and playwright, has a bit of a problem. He’s supposed to be hard at work on his new play, a romantic comedy entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. It’s set to be the latest production at the Rose, one of two ruthlessly competitive theaters amid the zestful squalor of Elizabethan London. Everyone is counting on him, notably Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), the Rose’s genially befuddled owner, who is being tortured by creditors and is in dire need of a hit. The trouble is, his star author is bedeviled by a paralyzing case of writer’s block.

You wouldn’t know it to listen to him. When the hero of Shakespeare in Love opens his mouth, the words spill forth in frenzied bursts of iambic acrobatics, as if tumbling simultaneously from his heart and his mind. (For him, there’s no difference.) ”We haven’t got time — talk prose!” scolds a friend. Joseph Fiennes, who plays the excitable young Bard, is soulfully handsome, with olive skin, delicate tapered cheekbones, and dark eyes that seem to burn right through to the core of whatever he’s looking at. That gaze, molten yet sensitive (its very knowingness is erotic), kept reminding me of Prince during his Under the Cherry Moon phase, when he would level his Bambi-pimp stare into the camera as if trying to come on to everyone in the audience. Fiennes, the younger brother of Ralph, plays William Shakespeare as a man who experiences every moment of his life so fully that he is forced to talk dizzying circles of metaphor around himself simply to express what he’s feeling.

To finish his play, Shakespeare needs inspiration, a muse. As if by mystical fiat, he catches the eye of Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful heiress who happens to be gaga for his writing. Their smiles meet, their bodies meet, and so do their divine essences. Unfortunately, their love is doomed. Viola, you see, is set to marry Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a crusty lout who promises to take her to some dreadful place called Virginia.

Shakespeare, his senses revived, begins to funnel his newfound romantic excitement directly into his play. Inevitably, though, the doom works its way in there as well. In the weeks it takes him to complete and stage Romeo and Ethel…, the play gets a rather significant title change, but, more than that, it becomes infused with the lifeblood of Shakespeare’s passion: the free fall of his infatuation, the sense of its being crushed by unstoppable forces. His love affair flowers all too briefly, but it brings his prose poetry to life, and so lives forever.

Many of us carry around a mythical dream image of Shakespeare in our heads — a portrait of the artist as walking soul. Shakespeare in Love brings that image to life with a fervid theatricality and wit, a boisterous wholeheartedness, that is nothing short of enchanting. The screenplay, by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard, is studded with irresistibly clever bits of Shakespearean lore — in-jokes, speculative riffs about how he stole this plot or that line — as well as cheeky time-warp gags like having Shakespeare treat his father confessor as a shrink. The dialogue just about percolates with bubbly finesse; Shakespeare in Love is that rare thing, a literate crowd-pleaser. Yet it’s also the richest and most satisfying romantic movie of the year. It’s really about two great loves at once — the love of life and of art — and the way that Shakespeare, like no writer before him, transformed the one into the other.

This is a movie full of moments, and performances, to savor. Rush, in a wicked bit of high caricature, is wryly discombobulated as the bucktoothed showman Henslowe, and Ben Affleck, as a strapping traveling player who bullies Shakespeare into shaping the role of Mercutio to his vain whims, shows a potent new comic force. Judi Dench, as the Kabuki-faced Queen Elizabeth, gives one of those show-stopping performances as a royal figure who is truly royal — miles above everyone in the room — yet so relaxed about it that she can afford to mischievously tweak every pretense.

Best of all is Gwyneth Paltrow, who, at long last, has a movie to star in that’s as radiant as she is. Her Viola is truly Shakespeare’s match: ardent in a contemplative, almost sacramental way, her emotions so luminous they seem to be shining right through her skin. Dressed in drag (since it’s illegal for women to appear on stage), Viola auditions for the part of Romeo, thus setting up an elaborate plot that prefigures the cross-dressing antics of Shakespeare’s love comedies. The debut performance of Romeo and Juliet, with Viola rushed on stage at the last minute, is the film’s exultant high point. The magic of this sequence is the way it marks the culmination of so many things at once: the rehearsal process brought to a rousing, break-a-leg climax; the birth of a new sexual democracy on stage; and a celebration of the thrilling psychological realism that Shakespeare gave to literature — a realism linked, in spirit, to the populist romanticism of the movies. This is one movie worthy of that legacy. A

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