Published May 1, 2000
Kenneth Branagh’s new film of Love’s Labour’s Lost has very little to do with the play of the same name by William Shakespeare. Branagh’s marketability (such as it is) has always been pretty closely tied to that of the 16th century playwright, but here he is shamelessly using the Shakespeare brand name simply in order to sell a typically Branaghian bit of self-indulgence. This involves him and a gang of new best friends singing and dancing to popular songs of the pre-war era and enjoying themselves hugely. Unfortunately, Ken and friends are not quite up to the old performance standards that they are attempting to ape. It’s not that they are hopelessly bad, it’s just that, in order to come off, such singing and dancing has to crackle with a sort of energy and electricity that the best of the old musicals supplied in abundance but that is painfully absent here. Only Adrian Lester, who plays Dumaine, might have passed an audition before one of the great Hollywood choreographers of old.
This is not quite Peter Bogdanovich’s memorable turkey, At Long Last Love (1975), in which the singing and dancing were led by Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd, nor yet Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), featuring the golden voices of Edward Norton and Drew Barrymore. But at times the amateurism of it is uncomfortably close.
Given this failure, it seems hardly worth mentioning that an all-singing, all-dancing Love’s Labour’s Lost is hardly in keeping with the (very Shakespearean) undercurrent of melancholy in the play. Perhaps recognizing this, Branagh attempts to drag in some melancholy from outside by setting the film in an imaginary British public school in an imaginary Navarre (why would they have a British public school in Navarre anyway?) in 1939 and making constant references to the looming prospect of War in Europe. Though I think this a very bad idea, it provides the occasion for what is the only really good bit of comic invention in the film, namely the pastiche of pre-war newsreels commenting on the action. These are done to the life, complete with the lame puns and corny jokes and those amazing old-style, upper-class BBC accents that you never hear anymore, even from the royal family.
Thus the news of the vow of the king (Alessandro Nivola) and his three lords, Dumaine, Longueville (Matthew Lillard) and Biron (Mr. Branagh) to study for three years while forswearing the company of women is greeted by the artificially jovial announcer’s saying that it will be “a real feast for bookworms. Sorry, ladies, but he is the king.” When the princess (Alicia Silverstone) and her women, Katherine (Emily Mortimer), Maria (Carmen Ejogo) and Rosaline (Natascha McElhone) are forced by the king’s vow to set up their pavilion outside the public school gates, the newsreel heading is “Royals Camping: a night under canvas for the ladies.” The pageant of the Nine Worthies is advertised by the same cornball announcer’s saying: “Who better to arrange an exotic night than an exotic knight” and we see a grainy black-and-white shot of Don Armado (Timothy Spall).
But even in this, Branagh is typically inclined to go overboard, and the concluding newsreel, which attempts to cram the entire history of the Second World War into five minutes, without narration but against a poignant rendering of “They Can’t Take that Away from Me” and some schmaltzy, Henry V-type music by Patrick Doyle, is an absurd straining after effect. In the same way, a lot of the spectacle—a synchronized swimming demonstration, a fragmentary vaudeville act by Costard (Nathan Lane), a duet between Nathaniel (Richard Briers) and a feminized version of Holofernes, Geraldine McEwan’s “Holofernia” to “The Way You Look Tonight”—all these things seem to be dragged in by the ears for the sake of the film’s tribute to and gentle mockery of the light entertainment of the 1930s. Shakespeare by this time is long-forgotten.
This is a pity because, almost more than any other of his plays, this one presents a real challenge for the contemporary interpreter-adapter. Its learned and often proto- “metaphysical” wit is less accessible, less comprehensible to us than anything in any of the other comedies, and yet its interest in the recalcitrance of male sexual desire and the feebleness of moral, intellectual, rational and especially all self-imposed restraint upon it offers us much matter for profitable study. Branagh’s only idea about this problem is to cut out virtually all the wit-play and substitute in its stead the 1930s schmaltz. It is easy to suppose that the only bit of what remains which is meant to be taken seriously is Mr. Lane’s rousing version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” which here replaces the pageant of the Nine Worthies—now of course long forgotten and so Worthy no more. One wonders if Shakespeare would have agreed about Show Business.
There are other problems. Timothy Spall is embarrassingly miscast as Don Armado and Moth almost fades from view. The talented Mr Briers and and Miss McEwan are wasted, since almost the whole of their dialogue as written by Shakespeare is cut. Nathan Lane as Costard is a good idea, but his comedy also mostly falls flat. As already observed, neither the boys nor the girls among the main characters are quite up to the demands of the singing and dancing, and Alicia Silverstone shows signs of being the new Andie McDowell: a poor actress who nevertheless has the taste to keep turning up in good, even great parts. She seems unable to speak without curling her lip in a most distracting way. Is she trying to suppress a sneer? If so, her taste is even better than we might have supposed.