With a fecund, fabulously inventive script by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, it's all on the page here, along with so very much more. Shakespeare in Love is an enthrallingly entertaining imagining of the young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), up against severe writer's block on, of all things, Romeo and Juliet. His malaise ends when he meets Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) a stagestruck, highborn Miss who disguises herself as a boy in order to act for him, as per Elizabethan law. Their union is fraught by the intrusion of Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), her venal, unloved betrothed, and any number of theatrical rivals, bent on Shakespeare's undoing, careerwise. True love and inspiration triumph, however, and Romeo and Juliet is given its first-ever performance at the Rose Theatre to tumultuous acclaim.

Incorporating heavy chunks of Shakespeare's immortal romance, as well as lifts from his other plays, and a plethora of hilariously knowing Broadway-type one-liners and asides, the screenplay is a glorious pastiche. Factor in period master John (Mrs. Brown) Madden's extravagantly detailed, whip-crack direction, plus a sumptuously colorful production, and it's a positive feast we're talking about. To say that Madden makes the Elizabethan era come alive would be a paltry understatement. He, like very few other directors, heightens the era, taking it far beyond mundane verisimilitude, giving it vividness and excitement, the stuff of pure drama. The film manages to serve up an excellent, albeit intermittent, reading of Romeo and Juliet (which actually makes you long to hear those much-quoted lines again, unadulterated), as well as a spanking good farce that can stand alongside such other theatrically flavored triumphs as Twentieth Century, To Be or Not To Be, All About Eve and The Producers.

Shakespeare in Love has one thing those other films lack, however: a rapturous quality of true, unbridled romance. It's in lines like Viola's passionately declaimed 'I will have love!' or Will's emotional description, 'It's like a sickness and its cure together.' Mostly, however, it's in the lyrically impassioned interplay of Paltrow and, especially, Fiennes. He is, simply, the young Shakespeare of one's dreams: neurotically handsome, canny, inspired yet pragmatic, and, essentially, besotted by love. He's a far more engaged actor than his brother, the chilly Ralph, and those brown eyes burn with a fevered ardency, both foolish and fond, unseen since the young Olivier in Paul Czinner's 1936 film of As You Like It. The movie would be nothing without a central actor capable of being a toweringly dashing romantic figure, as well as the living embodiment of the greatest of writers. Miraculously, Fiennes encompasses all of this, and is a superb, nervy comedian to boot. (One would never have surmised such range in him from his boy-toy appearance in Elizabeth.) Paltrow, bedecked in Sandy Powell's gorgeous gowns and Lisa Westcott's artful hair and makeup, is exquisite and spirited, and speaks her coveted lines feelingly and with immaculate diction, (It's weird how this Miramax house diva is always better British.) It's a satisfying performance that only lacks that indefinable spark, apart from beauty or talent-call it soul-possessed by the likes of both Hepburns, Vivien Leigh and woefully few young actresses today (only Uma Thurman and Robin Wright spring to mind). It's what keeps the film from soaring into pure romantic ecstasy. However, whatever Paltrow lacks in X-quotient is barely missed, so beautifully do her scenes with Fiennes play themselves out. Their big encounter, with him divesting her of the bandages that disguise her womanliness, the two of them reciting that deathless poetry to the accompaniment of Stephen Warbeck's surging music, surpasses in dizzy eroticism even Garbo's similar amorous metamorphosis in Queen Christina. The unrequited ending is both a bittersweet, poetic beauty and fulfilling emotional payoff, with Will pouring everything into a new play, again inspired by Viola (a little something called Twelfth Night).

Backing the lovers up is one of the strongest, and-this is rare-most gainfully employed supporting casts ever assembled. Geoffrey Rush gives a wonderfully subservient blessing of a sad-sack performance as Henslowe, the beset owner of the Rose, hung up on the need for laughs and dogs to keep audiences traditionally happy. As his rival impresario, Burbage, Martin Clunes is the perfect lusty, pompous ass. Colin Firth swaggers about in brocaded finery, having to suffer the loss of his lady to yet another Fiennes brother. (It was Ralph who got the girl in The English Patient.) Jim Carter is a grotesque delight, essaying Juliet's Nurse. Rupert Everett, Antony Sher and Simon Callow, all best in small doses, are ideal in their near-cameo roles. Ben Affleck is somewhat out of his element as a strutting actor but is, as usual, creamily handsome and gets to deliver that ultimate actor's whine, 'Is he going to say it like that?' Joe Roberts turns the young John Webster (The Duchess of Malfi) into a rat-baiting, slash-and-gore fan who'd be quite at home in any cineplex today. Mark Williams manages to carry off that hoariest of clichs, the stuttering dolt who rises magnificently to the occasion. And then there's Judi Dench as Elizabeth I. This stage powerhouse, equally adept at 007's crisply efficient M, or breaking your heart in the current London revival of Eduardo De Filippo's Filumena, turns her brief appearance into a tour de force. Along with the crustiness, intelligence and regal demeanor, she remembers to make her Queen a mistress of gallows' humor as well as quite terrifying to ordinary mortals. Arrayed in about two tons of embroidery, peacock feathers and jewels, she's both wondrously droll and scary, no easy feat.

One quibble: The film is a tad overlong-it's a conceit that gains from brevity-and might have benefitted from trimming, say, that unnecessary lovers' reprise.

--David Noh