There's no way around the elephant in the room, so it's best just to start with it, and clear it out: yes, Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar for Best Picture, and because of that, Saving Private Ryan did not. If you click on that link and compare my star ratings, you'll note that I don't think that's too much of a problem - certainly not compared to how Shakespeare in Love also beat The Thin Red Line for that Oscar. And hell, as long as we're going there, I think Elizabeth is about on par with Saving Private Ryan.* The frustrating thing, I get it, is that Shakespeare in Love didn't win on its intrinsic merits, but because future convict Harvey Weinstein basically paid for a victory, in the all-time peak of the Miramaxification of the Academy Awards.

The point is, whether it was the best of five arbitrarily-selected films or not, Shakespeare in Love is pretty damn good, and deserves better than to be forever thought of as the unfair winner of an award that very rarely has enough of a sense of humor to go for anything this legitimately pleasurable to watch. It's a wonderful combination of the old-fashioned and the new; the new comes largely in the form of its Tom Stoppard screenplay (rewriting an original draft by Marc Norman), which has a zippy, postmodern-lite take on the matter of how to do a costume drama. People speak with  modern (or, at least, '90s-modern) attitude and cadences, but the words they say have a distinct out-of-time quality; there's not much if anything that's period-authentic about the vocabulary of this costume drama set in 1593, but it does a fine job of suggesting a more formal, stately, stagelike way of speaking that keeps the contemporary vibe from turning the rest of the film into a mockery. Meanwhile, the quantity of theater-nerd in-jokes makes the whole thing feel like a meta-narrative game, in which we're constantly reminded that we're watching a movie about William Shakespeare, and that the whole thing is a bit of a ludicrous construction. Very Stoppard-esque, that.

The old-fashioned part is, well, the ludicrous construction. Shakespeare in Love is, for all its cleverness and wit and cunning, pretty dumb, actually: it's the story of how Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) was only able to write Romeo and Juliet because incidents and overheard snatches of speech in his everyday life kept giving him inspiration to directly incorporate those things into the drama. Specifically, it's about how his passionate, whirlwind romance with Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman much above his station, helped to break his writer's block, by showing him what love truly is. The low-hanging fruit here is, of course, that Shakespeare didn't write the story of Romeo and Juliet at all; as with virtually all of his plays, he was adapting fairly well-known source material into his own highly characteristic idiom, and so there would have been no tormented process of devising a narrative. And that's hardly the only blatant historical falsehood involved in the film's plot.

But the thing is, there's no aspect of the film that pretends to be sober history. This is pure Hollywood fluff, and if you take out all the sex and some of the more literate jokes, it's pretty easy to imagine exactly this story being told in mostly this way at any point during the height of the star system in the '30s or '40s. It's candy: gorgeous, sumptuous costumes worn on gorgeous, sumptuous sets by a murderer's row of frightfully talented actors giving their all to making sure we're having as good a time as possible enjoying the lighthearted fluff in front of us. Though if something is this well-mounted, with such charismatic performances breathing life into the handsomely puffed-up dialogue, how fluffy can it be? The film does, in its way, have something interesting (though not original) things to say about the creative process and how we - artists or otherwise - can be inspired to become our best and most energetic selves when we find someone wonderful to share a portion of our life with. Fluffy, but not trivial, let us say.

And at times, not even all that fluffy. One of the underrated strengths of Shakespeare in Love is how well it manages to maneuver from silly period-dress frivolity towards heavier material. It even brags about this, elliptically: near the end of the film, when we inevitably get to the first performance of Romeo and Juliet, the film helpfully shows the audience hooting and hollering so we know what parts of the impenetrable Elizabeth humor people would have laughed at. For this is the thing that we moderns aren't great at noticing with that play, in particular: it's basically a sex farce right up until they die. Which the film also depicts through the audience's reaction, in this case though a perfectly wonderful little grace note wherein we're backstage with Shakespeare as the final lines of the play are recited, and we see his look of tense concern when the audience doesn't clap; it's only then that we cut outside, to reaction shots showing that they're not clapping because they're too stunned by the enormous emotional weight of what they've just watched. Simple, clean, basic filmmaking, but it does a really great job of showing just how much of an impact well-done theater can have on a spectator.

Shakespeare in Love isn't as good at switching between comedy and tragedy as Shakespeare was, and in any case, while the film necessarily ends with the lovers separated (there's only so much abuse that actual history can withstand), this is treated more with warm melancholy than overt sadness, in part because both participants seem aware that the creation of Romeo and Juliet matters more than their shared affection. Still, it manages its own tonal shifts fairly well. Not perfectly; following the romcom formula (and this is, all the way down, a romcom), there's a bit where something unlikely and arbitrary comes between the lovers, in the form of a sudden death, and this is the one place where director John Madden lets the tone sink too far; what should be a solemn moment instead becomes a draggy stretch that kills the film's momentum enough that it has to spend some decent amount of time getting re-started.

Otherwise, the film beautifully navigates the three-way tension between being a sexy (but not too sexy) romantic comedy, a compendium of the most esoteric theater history jokes that Stoppard was able to squirrel into a film that had mainstream commercial intentions, and a costly-looking Oscarbait costume drama. The last of these is of course not permitted to be any fun at all, so it really is a neat feat that Madden was able to make something so polished and refined that's also quite bright and lively and playful, with his his terrific crew: costume designer Sandy Powell, having an obvious blast dressing the cast up in outfits that have the feeling of authenticity but the colorfulness of storybook illustrations; production designer Martin Childs, and his wonderful ability to make the O-shaped theaters of the English Renaissance read as living, working spaces with coherent geography; cinematographer Richard Greatrex, using a surprisingly aggressive motif of shallow-focus shots to mimic the way that the characters study each other and their environments, making for an unexpectedly kinetic visual experience, given how unflashy it is; composer Stephen Warbeck, whose music (built around a lovely main theme) at times shamelessly informs us how we are going to feel, but often does this in an unexpected reverse, by keeping things light and glossy in moments that might otherwise feel anxious or grave.

But it really is mostly about the cast. Shakespeare in Love has one of the best line-ups of any film of the '90s, frankly, and not always on paper: neither Fiennes nor Paltrow is a name that instantaneously should fill any of us with optimism, but both are at their very best here - Fiennes even manages to make the absurd conceit of "sexy William Shakespeare" feel natural to the character, and not one of the film's daffiest inventions. But they're just the leads, and while the film needs them to work as a glamorously-appointed romance, it falls to the jam-packed supporting ensemble to actually start pushing the film in the direction of greatness. There's Geoffrey Rush, darling of the '90s art film crowd, showboating as a quick-talking huckster; Tom Wilkinson shifting from arrogance to boyish charm as a pompous money man given a chance to act; Imelda Staunton as Viola's nurse, grounding the comedy of her character in a well-observed portrait of a loving but harried servant; Colin Firth jettisoning every trace of ego to play a pathetically smug creep; Simon Callow being gregariously cynical as the lead censor of the theater; Martin Clunes managing to sneak a well-developed sense of pragmatism and sense into the throwaway role of rival actor and theater impresario Richard Burbage. Even something that sounds as terrible as Ben Affleck playing legendary Elizabethan theater star Ned Alleyn works, and I cannot begin to say how it works, but it would be several years before Affleck came even remotely close to doing anything this convincing so extremely far outside of his comfort zone. And of course, Judi Dench, in a stunty cameo as Elizabeth I that won an extremely generous Best Supporting Actress Oscar (an obvious make-up award for passing her by for the previous year's Mrs. Brown, also directed by Madden). What the film actually does with the queen is certainly a bit silly and contrived, and Dench is obviously not being tested one tiny little bit, but there's a weird way in which her limited presence anchors the film giving it a kind of authority and weight as a prestige picture while also, given the obvious pleasure she has barking out orders and being royally curt, giving us permission to have fun despite all the lush '90s Oscarbait trappings.

It's all very well-made, and to the degree that term has a whiff of the pejorative, so be it. If the film is good at demonstrating one thing, it's that overtly calculated prestige cinema doesn't necessarily have to be lifeless and airless; it can be boisterous, charming, bantering, charismatic, fun. I don't know, at the end of the day, that Shakespeare in Love has all that much more to offer than that, being fun; but I do know that any fun this fizzy and generous is not to be sneezed at, and any film that can court Oscar so hard without even the slighest trace of self-importance or a medicinal aftertaste has worked it's own kind of minor miracle.

*Life Is Beautiful, however, sucks shit.