Poetic licence

Film byDavid Jays

Unusually for a film about an artist, Shakespeare in Love shows its hero at work. He sharpens his quill and ink-steeped fingers scribble mightily - even if he's only practising his signature. This is a nice Tom Stoppard touch (like his playwright in The Real Thing who agonises over a suitably profound playlist for Desert Island Discs), and typifies the film's rompish generosity. Stoppard has embellished the origina l screenplay by Marc Norman, going on the razzle with gleeful backchat and groaning pun. The director, John Madden, and his leading players respond with swelling hearts, animating the conceits and travesties.

Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) suffers from writer's block, his projected comic epic (Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter) strangely stalled. Craving a muse, he meets the radiant Lady Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is inspired by love's light wings. She, meanwhile, longs to strut the stage, and scampers to the theatre in doublet and hose, evading her lowering aristocratic suitor (Colin Firth). Events bob through those of Romeo and Juliet itself - a balcony, tragi-comic duels, cruel mischance and a beady nurse (Imelda Staunton) to grease the plot.

We know everything and nothing about Shakespeare. Everything about the man of property, nothing of the poet's heart. Even the most familiar (inevitably disputed) likeness, in the National Portrait Gallery, disappears into background obscurity, a slightly louche enigma. Shakespeare in Love refreshingly disdains any claim to veracity. We know that Shakespeare spent the plague years of the early 1590s writing his erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, so his amorous ferment here seems appropriate. Though she's hardly the poet's rampant Venus, Gwyneth Paltrow deserves her Botticelli ringlets. Swan-necked, she has a duck-billed beauty and she gives a delicious physical performance. Her goatee'd actor has a slacker slouch, released from the starch-spined demands of courtly dress. She does teach the torches to burn bright, and the camera swoons about her in a golden daze.

Joseph Fiennes, who in Elizabeth mastered the art of looking doe-eyed in a blouse, plays Shakespeare as a yearning mooncalf. The playwright becomes a snapper-up of suggestion, swooping on advice like the "upstart crow" and plagiarist of Elizabethan scorn. Although scourges of the theatre accused its boy-players of raising a miasma of misplaced eroticism, there is little here of the presumed bisexual Shakespeare of modern criticism (of the 154 sonnets, 126 are addressed to a man), but the film's lovesickness brims into androgyny. Viola inspires the role of Juliet but plays Romeo, and leaves Will poised to create the tear-streaked bewilderment of Twelfth Night.

The Today programme's man of the millennium, Shakespeare still infuses British culture - his face on our currency, his works the currency of our lexicon. We balk at genius nowadays, and Shakespeare in Love presents a talented hack, tumbling through the market, catching at demand, enmeshed in the perilous business of theatre. Oddly enough, this concurs with biographic trends, which illuminate his working environment and locate inspiration there rather than in the shadowy Dark Ladies and Only Begetters of the sonnets. Park Honan's recent biography was resolutely scholarly, shying at speculation. Shakespeare in Love does no more to flesh out his early marriage to an older woman who remained in Warwickshire. Anne Hathaway, poor cow, is kept off-screen, mistress of "a cold bed" in Stratford.

All adrenaline kitsch, Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film of Romeo and Juliet found its vigour in the salty tang of Shakespearean prose, discovering a street-smart pungency. This film, in contrast, swims in verse, is drenched in iambic. Stoppard's deft tapestry of allusion is amplified by Madden's romantic direction. The sheer beauty of Shakespeare's antique immediacy - "the sensual life of verse" that Keats acclaimed, that spurred his own "golden-tongued Romance" - informs the movie, and if it is only half the story, it is nonetheless giddying to sit through. Only Geoffrey Rush's bumbling impresario demands, "We haven't the time - talk prose".

Madden has far more fun with Shakespeare in Love than with the slow-thawing affections of Mrs Brown. Judi Dench follows her tiggywinkled Queen Victoria with Elizabeth I, a rot-toothed, tart-tongued queen, eyes glinting through a plastered skull. In a thronging London of stalls and slops, the Rose Theatre, weathered and tatty and agog with ground-lings, seems far more convincing than the sanitised heritage pot of the current recreated Globe. Madden presents the theatre as a comfortable, welcoming community, where actors juggle happily in the wings and band together in a crisis. It's like the ramshackle Crummles troupe that embraces Nicholas Nickleby and Smike (and Dickens, too, has them rehearse Romeo, Smike as intent on his apothecary's role as Shakespeare in Love's star-struck moneybags). Glorious artifice and granite pragmatism intertwine, and only a wobbly prop sword asserts the division.

"Shakespeare in Love" (15) is on general release