Friday June 9, 2000
Writing musical theater was not an option for William Shakespeare, but Kenneth Branagh hasn't let that trouble him. He's turned Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" into a 1930s-style romantic musical comedy, garnished with retro dance numbers and classic songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin. It ought to be delightful, but it isn't.
For while the idea is a charming one, in execution "Love's Labour's Lost" feels clumsy and jerry-built. Neither Shakespeare nor a musical and nowhere near as witty or effervescent as it pretends, this fusion is too leaden to be more than sporadically alive on screen.
What could be wrong with a film in which evergreens like "The Way You Look Tonight," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Cheek to Cheek" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" are featured? Start with the performers, many of whom, like co-stars Branagh and Alicia Silverstone, did not make their names as interpreters of melodies. While the vocalizing falls between the pain caused by the legendary "At Long Last Love" and the mild pleasures of Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," it's not exactly scintillating.
The same is true for the amateurish and second-hand dancing numbers (a failed Busby Berkeley extravaganza in a swimming pool is especially weak) that are unlikely to cause anyone to jettison their Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers tapes. When one of this film's producers says, "We had no practical experience of shooting a musical number," he's not just being modest.
It doesn't help either that the starting point is not one of Shakespeare's premier comedies. Set in the kingdom of Navarre (and updated to Europe on the eve of World War II), "Lost" focuses on the principality's king (Alessandro Nivola) and his boon companions Berowne (Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard) and Dumaine (Adrian Lester).
As detailed by the relentlessly upbeat faux newsreels of Navarre Cinetone News (one of the film's few amusing touches), king and company are about to embark on a monastic three years' study of metaphysics and philosophy. To prove to the world that they're serious about this endeavor, the quartet vow to ban women from their very sight.
Unfortunately for their resolve, a delegation headed by the Princess of France (Silverstone) and ladies in waiting Rosaline (Natascha McElhone), Katherine (Emily Mortimer) and Maria (Carmen Ejogo) are about to arrive and too important to ignore. The men say they will hardly notice, but in fact the king falls for the princess, his pals do likewise with her attendants, and the games of love's passions and deceptions begin.
While this isn't Shakespeare's most scintillating scenario, the screen version of "Love's Labour's Lost" does not benefit by being cut, its text consultant advises, to about 25%-30% of its original length. That kind of severe truncation makes what's left seem jagged and choppy and doesn't leave enough of the language for us to get comfortable with.
Also, a lot of what's left of the play is pitiful slapstick and failed farce, the kind of burlesque humor that helped kill burlesque. Most of this involves a barely comprehensible subplot employing a clown named Costard (Nathan Lane), chatty Spanish nobleman Don Armado (Timothy Spall) and the beautiful Jaquenetta (Stefania Rocca), all of whom have appeared to better effect elsewhere.
Worst of all perhaps is "Lost's" smug air of pleasure at how clever it thinks it's being to fit those wonderful songs into that venerable play. The cast members may want us to believe, as the newsreel puts it, "they're in the love business and there's no business like it," but the evidence on screen points the other way.
While the cast varies in its ability to handle the Shakespearean language, the person who does it best, not surprisingly, is Branagh himself. He has a true gift for making 400-year-old words seem bright and accessible, and watching him is a reminder that his direction of Shakespearean films used to exhibit the same characteristics.
In "Henry V," his 1989 debut, and 1993's "Much Ado About Nothing," Branagh set a modern standard for making Shakespeare approachable and comprehensible. The problem is not with that excellent intention, it's that Branagh is having more and more trouble trying to fulfill it.
Love's Labour's Lost, 2000. PG, for sensuality and a brief drug reference. Intermedia Films and Pathe Pictures present, in association with the Arts Council of England, Le Studio Canal Plus and Miramax Films, a Shakespeare Film Company production, released by Miramax Films. Director Kenneth Branagh. Producers David Barron, Kenneth Branagh. Executive producers Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Alexis Lloyd. Adapted by Kenneth Branagh from the play by William Shakespeare. Cinematographer Alex Thomson. Editor Neil Farrell, Dan Farrell. Costumes Anna Buruma. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Tim Harvey. Supervising art director Mark Raggett. Set decorator Celia Bobak. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Kenneth Branagh as Berowne. Nathan Lane as Costard. Adrian Lester as Dumaine. Matthew Lillard as Longaville. Natascha McElhone as Rosaline. Alessandro Nivola as King. Alicia Silverstone as Princess. Timothy Spall as Don Armado.