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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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Directed by John Madden, starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow
Written by Marc Norman and Top Stoppard

I've been waiting years for a Shakespearean film to come along and not only match the beauty of Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" but, more important, get people talking about Shakespeare! John Madden, who brought us the touching "Mrs. Brown," scores with a bravo romantic comedy that made me rise and cheer and proclaim it one of the year's best films.

It's England 1593, and the theater is THE form of artistic impression. But Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush of "Shine"), the owner of the Rose Theater, is having a serious cash flow problem, and if he doesn't come up with a hit his boss Hugh Fennyman (a terrific Tom Wilkinson) will make sure that his Spielberg days are over. With the two-minute warning looming overhead, he calls on Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) to save his hide.

A play's success depends solely on the Queen -- there are no Siskel & Ebert wannabes. A play premieres before the aristocrats if it's miraculously able to make her laugh or cry. "The Rose," (where the Queen will not go) is not known as a place for ladies to be seen, but for Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow, in her best work to date!) who desires poetry, romance, and adventure, it is the perfect watering hole.

Will has that certain gift with the pen. Like a star novelist presenting his frantic editor with a new chapter of his supposed best seller, Will delivers only parts of his play at a time with no one knowing what will follow. The eager anticipation and looks on everyone's face is priceless! A cattle call soon goes out for aspiring De Niros. Keep in mind that women were not allowed to participate during this period, but this chauvinistic obstacle did not stop Viola -- who poses as "Thomas" and auditions for Will's comedy. While everyone resembles Pauly Shore, Will has discovered a young Brando. Will's acting buddies also show up led by Edward Alleyn (a perfectly cocky Ben Affleck, of "Good Will Hunting").

Shortly, thereafter, Will eyes Viola, but just like when Leonardo spotted Kate in "Titanic," Will's buddies tell him to keep dreaming. Luckily for us, he ignores his chums and asks her to dance. Unfortunately, all the tangos between the two lovebirds have made the Earl of Wessex (Colin Firth) jealous. The Lord proceeds to threaten our hero who passes himself off as his chief rival Chris Marlowe (Rupert Everett of "My Best Friend's Wedding"). He later follows his instincts and climbs up Viola's balcony to see her where they reveal their attraction to one another. Viola has not only opened up to Will, but has given him that fearless passion to write again. As for poor Colin -- he played second banana to Joseph's brother Ralph in the "The English Patient" -- this is the second time that he's battling a Fiennes brother. Unfortunately, the Lord only sees Viola as a baby machine and wants to marry her for every reason except love. To make matters worse, the Queen ("Mrs. Brown" headliner Judi Dench) has approved the courtship and although Viola's heart belongs to Will, she cannot defy her Queen.

Thomas, once again, shows up and wins a role in the play, which is slowly turning into a drama. In a "Crying Game" reversal, Will tells Thomas that he loves Viola not knowing that he was talking to her all along until he eventually unmasks his loving impostor. Unfortunately, the two are running out of time as the planned marriage approaches. In a funny sequence, Will tags along with Viola to the palace and poses a challenge to the Queen, who doesn't believe that any "Rose" play can have any significance. The Queen takes him up on his Herculean task to create a breathtaking and meaningful production.

The film works because you believe love will conquer all. In fact, forbidden love hasn't been this wonderful since the "Titanic." I loved the way they passionately looked at each other. He worshipped her with his eyes while she nervously froze whenever he got close. He climbed onto her balcony like classic Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, up endless towers to be with Olivia de Havilland. They also share sweet moments in the canoe when Will pours out his heart to the woman he loves without knowing it is she. They not only hunger for each other, but they truly care for one another. It was touching to see Will get all hot and bothered whenever Viola had a kissing scene or when she was in the grasp of the wretched Lord. At one point, she was devastated to learn that Will was supposedly killed. You can feel the agony and then the excitement build in her when she discovers that he's still alive. These two desired passion and wanted love and nothing was going to stop them from achieving it!

Besides its winning love story, the film succeeds because of its film-within-a-film appeal. It is thanks to the forces at bay that "Romeo and Juliet" is born. Since no one wants Will and Viola to get together, he reshapes his story to reflect this. When tragedy strikes, the film reemphasizes how people will do whatever it takes to break their bond no matter the consequences.

Although the film boasts fine direction and a terrific Tom Stoppard script, it is the acting that spearheads its majestic success. You really want Paltrow and Fiennes to overcome the odds, while Colin Firth pulls off a nice Alan Rickman ("Die Hard") type performance. Judi Dench, matches her previous collaboration with Madden with a scene stealing supporting role as a Queen who's always one step ahead in a man's world.

A film like this is what going to the movies is all about! A picture that triumphantly echoes to follow your heart's desire and winningly does just that.

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