Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost: Reviews

School for Love
Kenneth Branagh Gets an A-plus for His Labour's
The Phoenix
Jeffrey Gantz

LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST, Adapted, from the play by William Shakespeare, and directed by Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola, Alicia Silverstone, Matthew Lillard, Carmen Ejogo, Adrian Lester, Emily Mortimer, Richard Clifford, Nathan Lane, Timothy Spall, Stefania Rocca, Richard Briers, Geraldine McEwan, Jimmy Yuill, and Anthony O'Donnell. At the Harvard Square and in the suburbs.

Listen up, class, this is Kenneth Branagh's recipe for Romantic Musical Comedy Shakespeare. You take your basic Bard and trim it down to, oh, 30 percent of the original. Set it in Oxbridge in 1939, with Europe on the verge of war. Season with great songs by George Gershwin ("I'd Rather Charleston," "I've Got a Crush on You," "They Can't Take That Away from Me"), Cole Porter ("I Get a Kick out of You"), Jerome Kern ("I Won't Dance," "The Way You Look Tonight"), and Irving Berlin ("Fancy Free," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "There's No Business like Show Business") and include production-number salutes to Esther Williams and Fred & Ginger. Add a heaping measure of Movietone News parodies plus a Casablanca homage and a heroic World War II finale. Let it roll for 93 minutes and, voilà!, you have "There's No Shakespeare like Branagh's Shakespeare," a masterpiece that merges the Bard's bittersweet wisdom with the wit, style, and idealism of '30s Hollywood musicals.

No need for devotees of Bardic cuisine rise to up in protest. Shakespeare didn't deal in ground round, it's true, but Love's Labour's Lost isn't exactly châteaubriand, either -- call it flank steak. You wouldn't want to make this recipe with a denser, more mature work like Much Ado About Nothing -- and indeed when Branagh turned that play into a movie, he played it straight, though there too Shakespeare's text was severely trimmed.

I grant you can't take 70 percent away from even Love's Labour's Lost without losing something important. Gone is the resemblance between dark Rosaline and the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets (those "two pitch-balls stuck in her face for eyes" didn't make the cut); and those of you who agonize over whether the "school of night" that the King of Navarre refers to is really Walter Raleigh's school of atheism can check your academic credentials at the door. Branagh focuses on the love story, wherein the King and his three lords woo the Princess of France and her three ladies; the principals' longer speeches are curtailed but the play retains its essential structure. Most of the "fat" that's been discarded is the comic byplay among the minor characters -- "fantastical Spaniard" Don Adriano, page Moth, clown Costard, country wench Jaquenetta, curate Sir Nathaniel, schoolmaster Holofernes, and constable Dull. This stuff is erudite (the earliest version of the play may have been intended for the court rather than the public theater) and, after 400 years, almost unintelligible without footnotes -- or subtitles. Only those who are writing doctoral dissertations on LLL will miss it.

Anyway, the black-and-white Navarre Cinetone News sequences are uproarious. "New Ideas in Navarre" introduces us to the King's notion that he, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine will shun the company of women and devote themselves to study for three years: the camera shows biker jackets being tossed on the floor, then cuts to the entrances of such edifying institutions as the School of Moral Science and the School of Natural Philosophy while the voiceover (Branagh himself, a dead ringer for the cheery deadpan of the Movietone originals) commiserates, "Sorry, ladies, but he is the king," then adds, "It's a tall order, by golly, but this audacious young king, one of Europe's most eligible royal bachelors, is determined to prove there's more to life than fun and partying." Subsequently, when the Princess of France and her entourage are denied entrance to the court: "It's an unexpected night out under canvas for the ladies" -- who, from the map we see, are practically back in Paris. And when our heroes fall in love: "Where Have All the Students Gone?": "Rumours abound of a gala party with singing and dancing -- was that included in the oath? Not much studying going on here [the camera pans empty student rooms], that's for sure."

With the death of John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh must be the finest Shakespearean actor alive. Rather than try to play the Bard's abstract characters, he lets them play him; the result is so natural, it hardly seems like Shakespeare, and if his Berowne comes off a lot like his Benedick in Much Ado, well, the two roles are cousins. (Besides, his Hamlet and Henry V are quite different.) Here his influence has rubbed off: his fellow actors -- including Natascha McElhone as Rosaline, Alessandro Nivola as the King, Alicia Silverstone as the Princess, Matthew Lillard as Longaville, Carmen Ejogo as Maria, Adrian Lester as Dumaine, and Emily Mortimer as Katherine, plus Richard Clifford as a David Nivenish Boyet, Nathan Lane as a Groucho-like Costard, Timothy Spall as a Dalí-look-alike Don Adriano, and Stefania Rocca as a Sophia Lorenesque Jaquenetta -- all treat the Bard's verse as if it were the script of Friends and not an embalmed episode of Masterpiece Theatre. In other words, it's living, breathing Shakespeare. If on top of that you're expecting vocal and terpsichorean pyrotechnics on the order of Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire (as, apparently, the New York Times' A.O. Scott was), you may be disappointed. I wasn't -- these troupers sing as well as Fred, dance as well as Frank, and are better actors than either.

In any case, the musical numbers are integrated ingeniously. At the outset, Berowne tells his oathmates "I'd Rather Charleston" than study. When he asks Rosaline whether they didn't dance in Brabant, the ladies all break into "I Won't Dance." Out in their tent, the pajama party wakes to "No Strings (Fancy Free)" as the Princess ditches her giant teddy bear and they all don gold lamé bathing suits for an Esther Williams pool number. Berowne's "And when Love speaks, the voice [Shakespeare means "voices"] of all the gods/Make heaven drowsy with the harmony" leads straight into the "Heaven . . . I'm in heaven" of "Cheek to Cheek" as the men appear in white tie and the ladies in evening gowns; then the ladies go hooker and the guys make like Stanley Kowalski for "Let's Face the Music and Dance." "The Way You Look Tonight" becomes a poignant pas de deux for the King's two tutors, Holofernia (Geraldine McEwan) and Nathaniel (Richard Briers). And in place of the Nine Worthies, we get the entire cast tapping to "There's No Business like Show Business." It all ends in abandoned martini glasses and empty tables as the big gala is disrupted by the death of the Princess's father and the dolls ask the guys to earn their love as everybody muses, "They Can't Take That Away from Me."

Or does it? Branagh was determined they wouldn't take his happy ending away from him -- and smart enough to know the lovers would have to deserve it. So after a misty airfield-departure scene that salutes Casablanca, he sends everybody off to war. Newsreel footage shows Boyet getting killed, the Princess and her ladies being led away by the Nazis, Jaquenetta and babe behind barbed wire, and the guys doing what England (forget Navarre) and Winston Churchill expect. At the end the newsreel goes post-war technicolor to celebrate the triumph of love.

By the standard of Citizen Kane or The Searchers or Persona, Love's Labour's Lost isn't a great film, but it's been almost 40 years (Charade, 1963) since I had this much fun at the movies. Branagh pours out his heart ("From women's eyes this doctrine I derive/They are the ground, the books, the academes/From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire") while giving the greatest playwright ever his due. That's why, even though the Phoenix's movie-rating scale tops off at four stars, I gave this one five.

* * * * *

Sidebar: New ideas from Branagh

For all that audiences will get a kick out of the '30s musical numbers in Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, the defining conceit here is the series of "Navarre Cinetone Newsreel" sequences that frame the film. So it's a surprise to learn they were a late addition.

"It was a sort of two-o'clock-in-the-morning idea," Branagh explains at the Ritz-Carlton, during a quick Boston visit before dashing off to Newport and then the Tony Awards. "Harvey [Weinstein, of Miramax] and I agreed that something had to be done. So we did the newsreel. Much of what you see in the black-and-white sequences that make up the newsreel were parts of linking passages or montages that I thought would do the job. There was a long arrival sequence for the boys at the beginning that was a much more linear and conventional narrative with captions that took us to the beginning of the piece, and they would have been in color. The film in preview [pre-newsreel] had enjoyed a fitful sort of reaction; people were confused, so we found this way of telling the story. Once they heard the newsreel voice, once they saw the fun of jump cuts and degraded film and self-conscious staring into camera and the march-of-time music behind it, suddenly everybody knew where they were."

So, whose voice is it?

"Well, that's me. There's a bloke in England called Bob Danvers Walker, and when I was growing up, when you saw anything historical and they played newsreels of coronations and war footage, he was always the guy, and that voice was whizzing around my head as a kid. That English version of the American Movietone News, most of it's got that perky tone."

As for the closing newsreel footage, where World War II intervenes and the lads do their duty, Branagh says it wasn't an automatic choice. "When we came to post-production, we tried three versions of the ending. One was to stick with the ending as it is in the play, and it just felt terrifically unsatisfactory in the context of a boy-meets-girl musical. Then we thought maybe it needs to end on a number, so we switched `There's No Business like Show Business' to the end of the movie. But in that context, just after the death of the Princess's father, it seemed insensitive or glib. So what you see at the end is my original instinct about how the screenplay should finish."

In between, this Love's Labour's Lost preserves only some 30 percent of Shakespeare's original -- but Branagh points out that the cutting in his much admired Much Ado About Nothing was just as savage. "You keep thematic material that somehow makes you feel as if it isn't gone or as if cinema is somehow filling in the gaps, be it in looks or atmosphere to make you feel that more than is literally there is there. You cut to the point where you can play it at the appropriate speed so that the air around it does a thing of not making you feel it's rushed."

Would he be offended if a critic described this movie as "sit-com Shakespeare"?

"I'd be intrigued. I'm a huge fan of Friends and Frasier, where the comic facility of the performers and the economy of the writing and the whole level of performance is so astonishing. I worked with Courteney Cox once, and I went to see Friends recorded when they were in London making a couple of episodes [Ross and Emily's wedding], and I was amazed to get a little insight into that process and see the work that went on, the numbers of drafts, and then the work on the day and the work in recording it."

And what about Branagh as a song-and-dance man?

"When I was at drama school, we did it all the time, and it was absolutely part of the training. We did a Gershwin musical, Lady Be Good, we even nicked one of the numbers from that, `I'd Rather Charleston,' and I was in the chorus playing a waiter. I did a couple numbers in a play as a character who emulated Jimmy Cagney, and I had about six months to learn a solo tap number to `Give My Regards to Broadway.' Though I'm not a natural at singing or dancing, I enjoyed both enormously. And the crew all commented how having the music around made for a terrific upbeat atmosphere. We wanted that to come across, we absolutely wanted to put a smile on people's faces."

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Branagh's Bold Labour of Love
Derek Elley

BERLIN (Variety) - Love's Labour's Lost is a luscious labor of love.

As if to prove the two extremes of his affection for the Bard, Kenneth Branagh has followed his four-hour, belt-and-braces version of ``Hamlet'' with one of the most audacious adaptations of Will's works, hacked down into a faux, old-style Hollywood musical and given the handle ``A Romantic Musical Comedy.''

Textual purists are likely to flutter their hands in horror, but anyone with an open mind and a hankering for the simple pleasures of Tinseltown's Golden Age will be rewarded with 90-odd minutes of often silly, frequently charming and always honest entertainment. Extremely smart marketing will be needed to overcome negative reviews by high-minded crix and to sell the concept as a fun, slightly campy entertainment to the younger crowd. Despite the movie's formidable intelligence and invention, modest returns look more likely in today's high-tech market.

The picture poses a massive marketing problem because there are simply no precedents in living memory for such a picture. Though adaptations of Shakespeare's plays tumbled out during the '90s, most were targeted at the youth market, either through modern settings or as star-driven vehicles. By re-casting ``Lost'' as a traditional Hollywood musical -- a form that effectively died out over 30 years ago -- Branagh has raised the stakes even higher, recalling (for those with long memories) Peter Bogdanovich's 1975 box office flop ``At Long Last Love.''

Branagh has done everything within his power to make things easy for a modern audience. The original text has been hacked back to almost nothing, and the plot massively simplified; the 10 musical numbers come fast and frequent; and the whole thing is packaged as upbeat, widescreen entertainment that doesn't have an ounce of spare flesh in its trim 93 minutes.

The concept of melding the Hollywood musical (never noted for its historical accuracy or believable plots) with one of the Bard's fluffiest and most verbally dexterous romps is a clever one. Where Branagh takes his biggest risk is in retaining rather than modernizing what's left of the original dialogue, which still takes considerable concentration to follow, in between the highly hummable classics by Gershwin, Kern, Porter and Berlin.

Plot is pure frippery. The King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) has retired to the country with his three friends (Branagh, Matthew Lillard, Adrian Lester) to pursue the intellectual life away from the distractions of beautiful women. But their resolve is soon put to the test when the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her three companions (Natascha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo, Emily Mortimer) pay the King a visit.

Milling around on the outskirts of the plot are various eccentric characters, including a horny Spanish nobleman, Don Armado (Timothy Spall); Costard (Nathan Lane), a vaudeville clown; a police constable, Dull (Jimmy Yuill); country wench Jaquenetta (Stefania Rocca); a curate (Richard Briers); and pedantic teacher (Geraldine McEwan, in a part that was originally male).

Branagh sets the whole thing in September 1939, as war clouds gather over Europe and a privileged gentry enjoys an aimless existence. Interspersed through the action, and conveniently summarizing huge chunks of plot, are B&W, fake-scratchy newsreels, with a plummy English voice (Branagh again) putting a jocular gloss on outside events.

Nothing about the setting or characters makes the remotest sense in historical or cultural terms, and the pic (shot at Shepperton Studios in England) aims for a kind of fairy-tale mishmash that's as artificial as an old RKO or MGM musical, or any of Josef von Sternberg's extravagances. And even though the setting is the eve of WWII, the picture draws on and evokes the look of musicals from the early '30s (Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire) to the late '50s (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra), with even nonmusical refs (``Casablanca'') thrown in for good measure.

The surprise is that none of this matters. Most importantly, Branagh clearly knows his musicals and abides by the well-tested rules that made the classics classics. Sets are relatively few (a library, courtyard, riverside front, garden) and evoke similar ones from past tuners; most dance numbers employ long takes, with the full length of the dancer's body visible; and segues from dialogue into songs are musically seamless and psychologically apt.

When les girls arrive at night by boat, in a magical sequence of color-coded dresses and Chinese lanterns, they play coy with the men via Kern's ``I Won't Dance.'' When Berowne (Branagh) lectures his pals on the marvels of love, he slips into Berlin's ``Cheek to Cheek.'' And when the four pairs are forced to part temporarily at the end, Gershwin's ``They Can't Take That Away From Me'' provides the musical grouting. All numbers are kept short and brief, never taking over the picture.

The overall effect is knowing and joyful at the same time, aided by perfs from the whole cast that are free of pretentiousness and have a superior stock-company glee. Stuart Hopps' choreography artfully disguises the fact that only Lester can really dance; and vocal weaknesses by some in the cast (Ejogo, Silverstone, Branagh) are fleeting. Apart from a couple of intentionally tricky sequences -- a Busby Berkeley parody as the girls wake up to Berlin's ``No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)'' and a steamy fantasy ballet to ``Let's Face the Music and Dance'' -- editing by Neil and Dan Farrell is light of touch.

There's scarcely a weak link in the mixed-accent, Anglo-American cast, with only Ejogo, Mortimer and Lillard failing to register strongly, more from shortage of screen time than lack of acting smarts. Branagh comes over as remarkably fresh and light, without hogging the spotlight; Nivola makes a handsome and commanding king, and, most surprising of all, Silverstone holds her own in a sporty performance as the young queen, delivering the goods in a major final speech opposite Branagh. Of the queen's companions, McElhone is strongest, while Spall turns in a show-stopping comic term as a linguistically challenged Spanish lech and Lane provides vaudevillian bounce throughout.

Remaining tech credits are of a high order, with Patrick Doyle's underscoring a major assist in mood and tone, especially in the final reels. In German-subtitled print caught, Alex Thomson's Panavision widescreen lensing was, however, often less than ideally sharp outside closeups.

King ............... Alessandro Nivola

Princess ........... Alicia Silverstone

Rosaline ........... Natascha McElhone

Berowne ............ Kenneth Branagh

Maria .............. Carmen Ejogo

Longaville ......... Matthew Lillard

Dumaine ............ Adrian Lester

Katherine .......... Emily Mortimer

Nathaniel .......... Richard Briers

Holofernia ......... Geraldine McEwan

Jaquenetta ......... Stefania Rocca

Dull ............... Jimmy Yuill

Costard ............ Nathan Lane

Don Armado ......... Timothy Spall

Moth ............... Anthony O'Donnell

Mercade ............ Daniel Hill

Boyet .............. Richard Clifford

A Pathe Pictures (in U.K.)/Miramax (in U.S.) release of an Intermedia Films and Pathe Pictures presentation, in association with the Arts Council of England, Le Studio Canal Plus and Miramax Films, of a Shakespeare Film Co. production. (International sales: Intermedia, London.) Produced by David Barron, Kenneth Branagh. Executive producers, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Alexis Lloyd, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein.

Directed, written by Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Camera (Technicolor London prints; Panavision widescreen), Alex Thomson; editors, Neil Farrell, Dan Farrell; music, Patrick Doyle; music producer, Maggie Rodford; production designer, Tim Harvey; supervising art director, Mark Raggett; costume designer, Anna Buruma; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Glossop; choreographer, Stuart Hopps; associate producers, Rick Schwartz, Andrea Calderwood; assistant directors, Simon Moseley, David Gilchrist; casting, Randi Hiller, Nina Gold. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 14, 2000.


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Empire Magazine
Issue 130 April 2000
Caroline Westbrook

Shakespearean romantic shenanigans set to the standards of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.
Let's face the music and dance...

As anyone who ever saw Kiss Me Kate will testify, setting Shakespeare to music is a formula as tried and tested as Kenneth Branagh filming the Bard's works in the first place. Love's Labour's Lost, his first attempt to bring Shakespeare to screen since 1996's splendid Hamlet, is one of the scribe's more obscure comedies, and boasts one of his flimsiest plots. Which is why bringing the setting up to 1939, and having the cast belt out Cole Porter and Gershwin numbers works so well, bringing substance to the story.

The plot structure follows the format of your average Shakespeare comedy; in this case, the boys are headed up by the King Of Navarre (Nivola) and his gang of mates (Branagh, Lillard and Lester), who have sworn off women for three years to concentrate on their studies. Until, that is, the Princess of France (Silverstone), and henchwomen (McElhone, Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejogo), show up on his doorstep.

Meanwhile, in the comedy corner, Richard Briers dodders about as a local priest, Lane plays court jester and Timothy Spall almost steals the show with his heavily-accented rendition of I Get A Kick Out Of You. And that's it, except it's punctuated with familiar tunes (Cheek To Cheek, Fancy Free, Let's Face The Music And Dance...), all impeccably and imaginatively choreographed.

There are pitfalls in mainly choosing talented actors over trained singers - those cast members who do have a background in musicals upstage everybody else whenever they get the spotlight (to wit: Lester's breathtaking dance solo in I've Got A Crush On You).

That said, there's no-one here who genuinely can't sing or dance, and the story is handled well, with largely great performances from the cast (McElhone and Timothy Spall are standouts, as, inevitably, is Branagh). Weak links aside (Silverstone's princess doesn't quite convince, and the straight-faced ending fails miserably), this potentially risky venture is the kind of success that could signal a major revival for the musical genre. How about following it up with Steps Do Julius Caesar?

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Total Film
April 2000
Debi Cochrane

What's the story? The King of Navarre (Nivola) and his companions Longaville (Lillard), Dumaine (Lester) and Berowne (Branagh) take a public oath swearing to renounce all women and bury themselves in study for three years. But when the Princess of France (Silverstone) arrives accompanied by her three attractive pals, the scholars' resolve is put to the test.

Ken's backing in the director's chair, working once again with his favourite scriptwriter, Mr Shakespeare. Following the star-studded Much Ado About Nothing, the satirical In The Bleak Midwinter and the epic Hamlet, Branagh's attention has turned to one of The Bardster's lesser known comedies, Love's Labour's Lost. But don't expect a Romeo & Juliet-style, MTV'd up modernisation - this is an all-singing, all-dancing musical, much in the same vein as Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.

The text has been stripped down to the bare bones and the action transported to the year 1939. With the film parodying '30s and '40s Hollywood musicals, many of the play's lengthier scenes have been cut and replaced by song-and-dance numbers, ranging from Esther Williams-style synchronised swimming sequences to top-hat-and-tails tap routines, all to classic tunes from the likes of Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

As with his other adaptations, Branagh has here assembled an international cast, mixing stage veterans with more familiar movie actors. Nathan Lane and Adrian Lester, both well known for their musical ability, steal the majority of the big numbers, but the rest of the cast hold their own. Natascha McElhone's vocalisations are particularly impressive, and top hats should go off to Branagh for managing to sing, dance and direct simultaneously. Silverstone's Princess, however, is less convincing, although she'll doubtless pull in a younger crowd.

Love's Labour's Lost is not one of Shakespeare's finest comedies, lacking the heartfelt affection of Much Ado About Nothing and the clever love games of As You Like It. It's a simple story, made even simpler in this adaptation and the songs work better than the text. Still it's refreshing to see a new musical hit the big screen.

Final Verdict: Branagh's latest Shakespeare adaptation lacks some of the magic of his previous reworkings - but if you fancy something a bit different, and have a soft spot for '40s musicals, then you may find this surprisingly good fun. 3 stars out of 5.

****** review.

Ain't It Cool News review

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For the Love's Labour's Lost page, click here.

For the Making of Love's Labour's Lost page, click here. Includes interviews, articles and essays.

For more essays and commentary on Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For the story of Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For the studio production notes for Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

Click here for Trust Kenneth Branagh. Interviews with the Belfast Telegraph and The London Guardian are paired with photos and screen captures from Love's Labour's Lost.

For the Daily Telegiraffe review of Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For other reviews of Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

For the official website of Love's Labour's Lost click here.

For Branagh's thoughts on the film (from the LLL official website), click here.

For an interview with composer Patrick Doyle on the music in Love's Labour's Lost and more, click here.

For Love's Labour's Lost and more in the Guardian interview with Kenneth Branagh at the National Film Theatre's 1999 Branagh retrospective, click here.

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