Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

A Film by Kenneth Branagh

Review by John B. Kenrick

There have been stranger ideas that worked. Resetting one of William Shakespeare's lesser comedies in the 1930's and sprinkling it with classic songs by Porter, Berlin and the Gershwin's certainly was worth a try. However, Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labors Lost never manages to blend these promising elements successfully. As a summer afternoon entertainment it is far from terrible, but one had hoped for something more.

As director, Branagh sees to it that even a Shakespearean novice like Alicia Silverstone handles the Bard's verse decently. However, Branagh presents almost every musical number in an arch, over-the-top, almost campy style – as if he was interrupting Shakespeare to make fun of musicals. My companion put it well when he asked, "Why do I get the feeling that every number is 'Springtime for Hitler'?" The uneasy laughter each number evoked at the screening I attended suggests that the audience was confused – are these songs meant to be loving tributes or snide send-ups? That lack of clarity is the director's fault, and it becomes a fatal flaw in this film.

The story begins in 1939, with the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and three comrades (Branagh, Adrian Lester and Matthew Lillard) swearing off all earthly pleasures and devoting themselves to three years of study. This vow crumbles when the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and three handmaidens (Carmen Ejogo, Natasha McElhone and Emily Mortimer) arrive for diplomatic negotiations. Just as they all fall in love, the Princess learns of her father's death, and must return home. The young lovers pledge to re-unite in a year. This is where Shakespeare ends the story, but Branagh adds an epilogue montage that follows the characters through the carnage of World War II, having the survivors reunite on the streets of London the day Germany surrenders.

There are some fine actors in the cast, but far too few with musical experience. As a result, I often had the feeling I was sitting at a community theatre production, watching office workers and housewives gamely stumbling through a nicely designed production of Anything Goes. The dancing is decent enough, but always a bit too broad – the singing is sometimes passable, sometimes laughable. A Fosse-esque "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is a pure horror, and even "The Way You Look Tonight" sounds ridiculous. However, when the lover's part, singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" in an obvious homage to the airport scene from Casablanca, the sentiment works – and only makes you angrier that they didn't give the rest of the score such a straightforward treatment.

Of course, one or two experienced veterans pull it off and get the laughs. Timothy Spall, who was so charming in Topsy Turvy, is a hoot as Don Adriano, a bizarre court attendant who is infatuated with a young woman he arrests. Spall's rendition of "I Get a Kick Out of You" is easily the comic highlight of this film, one of the few moments when we are clearly meant to be laughing. Broadway's own Nathan Lane has a far harder job playing Costard, a court jester who is here depicted as a vaudeville comic. Lane slips in tributes to many old show biz comedy traditions (regretably including a rubber chicken), but his "There's No Business Like Show Business" is overwhelmed by an amateurish ensemble dance routine.

The rest of the cast get through it all as best they can, some looking far better than others. Alessandro Nivola is easily the most drop-dead gorgeous actor to grace a screen in decades, and is a very capable Shakespearean actor to boot. Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers are charming as the headmistress and priest overseeing the King's studies, but have far too little to do. As for Branagh himself, he would do well to realize that dying his hair blonde and surrounding himself with younger actors only makes him look needlessly older. A forty-year-old college boy? He got away with it (sort of) in Hamlet, but as Shakespeare once put it, Sir Kenneth would do well to "doff this foolish habit."

And as long as we're speaking in the Bard's style –

Good friends, this play from Shakespeare's wooden "O,"
Though rarely seen, is not without its charms.
But woe to those who think iambic verse
Can blend with songs by Porter and Berlin
And please the world like musicals of yore.
To smirk at Broadway's best 'tis sadly base.
Tunesmiths were masters, no less than the Bard.
The verse of Shakespeare sings well on its own,
And Ira Gershwin's sweet rhymes bear no shame.
In short, I love Berlin's sweet "Cheek to Cheek"
No less than Will's "To be or not to be."
Both loves are my own, neither labour's lost,
And Branaugh can't take that away from me.

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