Cole Porter said it best: It's delightful, it's delicious, it's De-Lovely! Irwin Winkler's musical valentine to Cole Porter and his genius sets just the right tone, a harmonious blend of intelligence and sentiment, intensified by a song score to sigh for and the best film performance of Kevin Kline's estimable career. The director trusts his material enough to eschew flashy film editing and other hyperbolic techniques, which seem de rigueur in current movie musicals (Moulin Rouge, Chicago). Instead, he finds a balance between uninterrupted musical numbers, in the spirit of the old MGM musicals, and the more casual inclusion of Porter's songs performed in the background, at parties or on the stage. Although contemporary pop artists such as Elvis Costello, Alanis Morissette, Diana Krall and Sheryl Crow appear in period costumes singing Porter songs, the most moving renditions are by Kline, as the composer who never much liked his voice.

Recalling Ernst Lubitsch's 1943 Heaven Can Wait, De-Lovely begins with an old "sinner" revisiting his life before departing for the hereafter. But instead of talking to the Devil, Porter addresses a stylishly dressed heavenly emissary named Gabe (as in Gabriel), played by the always-riveting Jonathan Pryce. Kline's ailing Porter (who looks like a mature Ray Milland) is transported from his Manhattan apartment to an empty theatre, where Gabe is directing the story of his life. Amidst the dancing and singing ("Anything Goes"), he recognizes key figures from his past: former lovers and colleagues, his friends Sara and Gerald Murphy and their children, his director Monty Woolley, and then his wife, Linda. They are all young and beautiful, and on stage, at least, so is he. The film continues as a series of flashbacks, deftly shifting between the stage, "real life" and the responses of the elderly Porter and Gabe. The device works well, allowing Porter to reflect on his long career and marriage while he and the audience enjoy a good show. And, appropriately enough, the songs take center stage.

Winkler takes liberty with the music's chronology. If a later song complements a scene set in an earlier time, or vice versa, it plays. There aren't many scenes of the tortured composer trying variations on the piano until he gets it right--that staple of the genre. The songs succeed in propelling the plot, from Porter's first sighting of the glamorous divorce who would soon be his wife, at a "swelligant" Parisian party during the Jazz Age; to Mr. and Mrs. Porter's move to a spectacular Venetian villa ("What Is This Thing Called Love?"); to New York and Porter's first Broadway success, the 1928 musical Paris ("Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love"); to Hollywood and Louis B. Mayer's MGM ("Be a Clown"), and finally Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he composes his last great work, Kiss Me Kate.

But as much as the film celebrates Porter's brilliant music, it is equally committed to exploring Cole and Linda's "singular" marriage. This isn't the first Hollywood treatment of Porter's life (the first was the 1946 Night and Day starring Cary Grant), but it's the most honest and successful. In De-Lovely, Linda marries Cole knowing that he is gay, and that he has no intention of inhibiting his sex life. "You don't have to love me the way that I love you, Cole," Linda says on their wedding night. "Just love me." And whether or not Winkler captures the truth of their relationship, their marriage lasted 35 years, and by all accounts the Porters were devoted to each other. In Kline's richly detailed portrayal, it's impossible not to empathize with Porter, and understand Linda's attraction to him. In the early scenes, Kline captures Porter's verbal and physical dexterity. As the character ages, and especially after his life-altering riding accident, Kline conveys the excruciating pain and depression Porter endured for the rest of his life.

As Linda, Ashley Judd plays the less complex role of muse with a steely grace. Perhaps she got a raw deal emotionally, but this Linda loved Cole's music as much as the man, and according to this version, he couldn't have done it without her. When Linda dies, with Cole singing "So in Love," to her it's one of the most moving death scenes, or love scenes, in the movies. And, it must be noted, Judd looks spectacular in her vintage Armani gowns and pendulous pearls. She adds to the luxurious beauty of this poignant, elegant film.

-Wendy R. Weinstein