Film: A pox upon those men in tights

So you want to do doublet, hose and a bit of ruff... What's standing in your way? History, of course. Then again, the historical movie isn't quite what it used to be

Shekhar Kapur may have picked up a sheaf of warm reviews for his Bollywood-flavoured chronicle of the young Elizabeth, but not many critics dwelt on a bit part that outshone even Eric Cantona's weirdly-vowelled cameo. As the French regent Mary of Guise, Fanny Ardant pouted and sneered and heaved to a pitch of bosomy excess that drove an earnest period piece well down the road towards Carry On Up the Tudors. Indeed, Barbara Windsor herself could hardly have surpassed the Fanny who dipped her flag in enemy gore and rasped at a cringing envoy: "Tell your Eenglish Queen not to send boieez to faaht Maree of Guise."

Did these OTT flounces damage the picture? Not a bit. We expect a slice of ham served up with our screen history now. Two generations of gleeful parody - from Up Pompeii and Morecambe and Wise to Blackadder and beyond - have wrapped all costume drama in a swathe of farce that serious intentions (or serious acting) alone can never wish away.

For every setting prior to a pretty recent date, history now means high camp. From togas to tiaras, studio-soiled conventions stand between the audience and a proper appreciation of the past like so many sleeping policeman - or rather, laughing policemen. As Kapur's Elizabeth grasped, planned giggles can help suspend our disbelief and forestall too many out-of-place guffaws. Better to cackle at the director's bidding than during that tender love scene or crucial diplomatic crisis. Costume cinema now has to vaccinate its viewers against what Ken Starr might call inappropriate laughter.

When, exactly, do our automatic sniggers end? In spite of Judi Dench's balloon-like bathing cozzie and Billy Connolly's kilts, there seemed little intrinsically absurd about John Madden's Mrs Brown. A few decades further back, Jane Austen adaptations seldom suffer too much of a credibility gap from their snazzy waistcoats and A-line dresses. Could language be the key? Up to a point, but strip out the forsooths and gadzooks from the Flynn-and-Fairbanks era swashbuckler, and it still looks daft.

No: I have a theory that silliness ends when trousers begin. The arrival of tubular male legwear in the early 19th century (and, perhaps a bit more plausibly, the advent of photography) marks a decisive breach between ancients and moderns. On the button as ever, Mel Brooks fingered the problem in the subtitle he gave to his burlesque of Robin Hood movies: "Men in Tights".

In Shakespeare in Love, his next project after Mrs Brown, John Madden shrewdly plots a way through most of the men-in-tights tangles. His Oscar- tipped spoof-biopic embraces the corniest aspects of cinematic ruff trade and somehow comes through quite unscathed. How? The two-word answer is "Tom Stoppard", as the playwright's sprightly upgrade of a screenplay by Marc Norman allows him a new spin on some of his best - and oldest - tricks.

As in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (more than 30 years ago now), Stoppard doodles cheeky marginalia around the edges of Shakespearean lore and legend. In his trademark Existential-Lite fashion, he juggles in that shifting space between art and life, limelight and daylight. If the knowing gags of Blackadder prop up one end of Shakespeare in Love, the theatrical sorcery of Les Enfants du Paradis supports the other. Meanwhile, the whole genial shebang coasts along according to the rhythms of the it'll-be-all-right- on-the-night-backstage melodrama. Broadway babes carouse in the gutters of Shoreditch: it's a sort of 42nd Alley.

Needless to say, the conceit of an upstairs-downstairs affair between Joe Fiennes's blocked wordsmith and Gwyneth Paltrow's betrothed heiress owes as much to proven fact as Star Trek does to Stephen Hawking's astrophysics. Not that it ever aspires to authenticity: en route to meeting the flame- haired Muse who will inspire Romeo and Juliet, young Will is toiling over a turkey to be called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Do we detect a nod to Marc Norman's script for that shipwreck of a seaborne epic, Cutthroat Island? I suspect we do.

Stoppard and Norman know that we know this is mostly amiable tosh. They take aim not at the nebulous reality of London in 1593 but at the crust of screen cliche that congeals around it. Shakespeare in Love niftily deflates not the actual theatre of the time but the Props Department version of it. One hopes that no film or TV actor will ever dare to glue on a goatee or strap on a scabbard in anger again.

Anachronistic gags drop through the script like a downpour on the groundlings' heads. Anthony Sher plays a magus-like shrink who parks the thwarted Will on his couch and asks "Are you lately humbled in the act of love?" A Thames ferryman drones, "I had that Christopher Marlowe in the boat once". And so, inexhaustibly, on.

And yet... If parody alone accounted for the pleasures of the film, it would hardly rise above the Monty Python benchmark. The pantomime jokes, the sly asides, the self-conscious historical howlers: all of these ploys inoculate us against the off-putting routines of the period biopic. Yet, once this vaccine kicks in, Stoppard, Norman and Madden can do something rich and strange with a clapped-out genre. Behind the farce and flummery, they sow a genuine sense of the marvels of creation: how a private passion can flow obliquely into public art; or how a rabble of warring egos can somehow come together to make a wondrous new thing on stage (or screen).

This is a truly Shakespearean - and Stoppardian - insight, even if none of the dates add up, the Sonnets to a male "master-mistress" get redirected to La Paltrow, Judi Dench's Queen drops in on first nights, and Martin Clunes gives us the inevitable jowly burst of Burbage Behaving Badly. "It's a mystery", runs a line that passes from character to character like a relay baton - most movingly, when Mark Williams, as the tailor- turned-player who acts the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet, overcomes his stutter to voice the play's opening lines.

In mood, this glimpse of a miracle born out of comic muddle recalls not Romeo itself so much as a A Midsummer Night's Dream. In the Athenian wood, that chaotic "story of the night" grows at last into "something of great constancy, but howsoever strange and admirable". In the end, it is all right on the night.

Stoppard knows (as Shakespeare did) that you can only reach that still point at the close of a historical romance via frequent recourse to the sort of gags and buffoonery that will scandalise the pedant and the purist. Shakespeare in Love touches a kind of awestruck lyricism through debunking laughter, not in spite of it. Other costume-drama contenders should take note - or else make sure that they set their scene securely in the Trouser Age.

`Shakespeare in Love' opens on 29 January

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