It can't have been easy to make a romantic comedy about the man who was arguably the finest author of romantic comedies in history. After all, no matter how good Shakespeare In Love is, it can't measure up to Shakespeare's own work, can it? No, it can't, but that probably shouldn't be held against this generally entertaining, if terribly slight, film. Joseph-brother-of-Ralph Fiennes stars as a Shakespeare of the young and moony variety, whose frustrated attempts at writing a romantic comedy for the 1590s get a jumpstart when he meets an almost literally luminous Gwyneth Paltrow, who has played so many English characters in the last few years that even she may not be sure of her nationality at this point. Paltrow, it turns out, is a big fan of the theater, particularly Fiennes' own work, and she soon finds herself cross-dressing to secure a part in the work-in-progress that will become Romeo And Juliet. Their own romance, however, seems destined to be as star-crossed as the one they create onstage, thanks to Paltrow's unwished-for engagement to priggish aristocrat Colin Firth, a situation that casts a potentially tragic shadow over their coupling. Both Fiennes and Paltrow thankfully bring more to their roles than might have been there otherwise; the script gives its Shakespeare little more to do than be sullen and inspired while Paltrow's independent-minded, free-spirited heroine seems as anachronistic as a red Trans Am. The best things about Shakespeare In Love, some of which will be lost on those unfamiliar with the era, are the clever marginal touches, most of them the likely contribution of co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, who knows a thing or two about comedic explorations of Shakespeare. Director John Madden (Mrs. Brown), who could take a few lessons in narrative economy from his subject, too often allows these to be overshadowed by his story's less well-developed serious side. But overall, Shakespeare In Love delivers the goods, if the goods you're in the market for happen to be a clever romance concerning William Shakespeare that's unlikely to cause anyone to reassess their notions of Shakespeare, romance, or enjoyment.
More from The A.V. Club