Full of sound and flurry, Shakespeare in Love could be several different films: a romp; a romance; a toast to the theatre; a gleeful satire on art and commerce; and a sprightly exploration of the creative temperament. That it manages to be all of these and more is tribute to a film-making team that rattles through the emotional gears with a confidence and wit almost unprecedented in historical drama.
"Historical" is pushing it a bit. While set in London in 1593, the film isn't much concerned with ideas of authenticity or accuracy. So little is known of William Shakespeare's life at this or any other time that the conventions of the biopic are irrelevant. Yet instead of being constrained by this lack of biographical material, the film-makers seem to have been liberated by it. The screenplay, written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, posits the notion of Shakespeare as an indigent hack writer who didn't yet know the extent of his own gifts. We first see young Will (Joseph Fiennes) strutting and fretting around London's squalid streets, importuned by theatre manager Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) for news of his latest play, Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter. Even genius has to begin somewhere.
Unfortunately, Will has writer's block - and possibly something worse. As he explains to his therapist (who times sessions with an hourglass), "the proud tower of my genius has collapsed"; writing, he says, is "like trying to pick a lock with a wet herring". Just when the double entendres of another genre - Carry On Shakespeare, anyone? - become distantly audible, Will meets his muse: Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) is an affluent young woman who longs for a wild, ungovernable love, but instead is about to be married alive to a loathsome aristo, Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). She also desperately wants to be an actress, and since women are forbidden on the Elizabethan stage, she conceals her blonde tresses beneath a boyish crop, pastes on moustache and beard, and auditions successfully for the role of Romeo.
It's a subterfuge as unlikely as any dreamed up by the Bard, yet our disbelief is willingly suspended as the film waxes in comical and romantic vitality. The director, John Madden, whose previous movie, Mrs Brown, recounted the autumnal love between Queen Victoria and her ghillie, works much quicker here; no sooner has Will uncovered his leading player's real identity than he and Viola are making out on her four-poster and mouthing passionate declarations that feel, in a word, Shakespearean. It's love all right; what's more, it's love to inspire the playwright to vertiginous new heights of poetic expression.
This is where Shakespeare in Love feels at its most daring, and most ingenious: in one scene the line between life and art melts exquisitely as the lovers, whispering ardently to each other off-stage, are seamlessly revealed in the same attitude on-stage. It's remarkable not only in tracing the contours of what would eventually become Romeo and Juliet, but in speculating on the haphazard nature of literary composition. At one point we find Will in a tavern, slumped in dismay at his latest creative impasse; then his friend and rival Kit Marlowe (Rupert Everett) casually sketches out a new plot, and Will gratefully adopts it. As with much else in the film, it may not be fact, but it's true.
This sense of writerly improvisation is surely down to Tom Stoppard, who rummaged through the vaults of Hamlet in his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That play's prankish, irreverent comedy is alive and well here, both in anachronistic dabs and in the larger resonances between the infighting and philistinism of the Elizabethan theatre, and our own times. The parallels with Hollywood are unmistakable: when one theatre manager identifies a winning formula - "Comedy, love, and a bit with a dog" - you can imagine a studio mogul absently nodding in approval. I liked the casting of Ben Affleck as the egomaniacal "star" actor, hoodwinked into performing by Will's promise of calling the play Mercutio. As for excluding women from decent roles, not much has changed.
The film's satiric playfulness will certainly give audiences a lift, though what will raise the roof is the more obvious dazzle of its two leads. I've always found Fiennes too studied and self-regarding before; here he offsets high poetic intensity with a careless athleticism, and it's very engaging. Paltrow, an American-English rose, is an alluring if not altogether erotic presence; my main complaint is that she looks absolutely nothing like a boy, even under the cover of facial fuzz. They are supported by a democratic and talented ensemble, ranging from dependable character actors such as Jim Carter, Tom Wilkinson and Imelda Staunton, to comedians such as the two Fast Show stalwarts, Simon Day and Mark Williams. Judi Dench impresses as a shrewd and faintly terrifying Elizabeth, though the idea of the monarch arriving incognito for the first night is at least one dramatic liberty too far.
Shakespeare in Love, it hardly needs saying, will not find favour with the purist; conversely, some of its more lyrical flourishes may not please the crowd. Yet it almost defies you not to have fun. Just as the staging of Will's Romeo and Juliet totters on the brink of catastrophe, there is so much in the tone and texture of John Madden's film that could have sent it crashing down to earth. That it stays triumphantly aloft is as heartening an experience as recent cinema has provided.