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Shakespeare in Love purports to be "The Real Story of Romeo and Juliet," but it's pure fantasy and utterly delightful.

Written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, and directed by John Madden, Shakespeare in Love poses a number of whimsical "what ifs?" What if Shakespeare suffered from writer's block? What if Shakespeare went into therapy? What if Romeo and Juliet began as a comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter?

Set in Elizabethan times, but borrowing shamelessly from 1990s' sensibilities, Shakespeare in Love follows the professional and romantic progress of young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes). He's had some success, but remains up to his ears in debt to Rose Theater owner Philip Henslowe, hilariously portrayed by Geoffrey Rush.

Shakespeare stalls after writing a few pages on his new comedy, Romeo and Ethel. What he needs, Shakespeare's therapist tells him, is a muse. Enter Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), so eager to become an actress, she disguises herself as a man and auditions as Romeo. Shakespeare's smitten with her performance, but like Cinderella, she disappears before he can get his/her name. He follows him/her to Viola's estate. They meet, smile and immediately fall in love. But Viola is engaged to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) who plans on taking her to Virginia, of all places.

Truly inspired and with renewed vigor, Shakespeare goes back to work on his play, changing its title along the way to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare plays playwright by day and lover to Viola by night, and his work benefits. His play soon encompasses all the passion and frustration he feels in his personal life.

Paltrow and Fiennes make a rollicking, passionate couple -- both as Shakespeare and Viola and as Romeo and Juliet. Able to assume an English accent in the blink of an eye, Paltrow has several English roles under her belt, including Emma and Sliding Doors. Shakespeare in Love gives Paltrow a chance to truly shine, and she makes the most of her beauty and talent.

Ironically, Joseph Fiennes, adequate as Lord Dudley in Elizabeth, finds his muse in Paltrow. She gives him the chance to play Errol Flynn, and he has a ball. His Will is funny, obtuse, daring, charming and passionate.

The supporting cast also glows. Rupert Everett makes a literate Christopher Marlowe. Judi Dench portrays Elizabeth just as we imagine her to be. Colin Firth is perfect in his awfulness. And Ben Affleck, as the egotistical actor playing Mercutio who thinks Romeo and Juliet is about him, shows a real flair for comedy.

Not only is the movie fun, but as costumed by Sandy Powell, it's a treat for the eyes as well.

You don't need to know a lick of Shakespeare to enjoy this movie. If you do, you'll love Shakespeare in Love even more.

Joan Fuchsman

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