Kenneth Branagh: Love's Labour's Lost

Our review of Love's Labour's Lost is here.

In the spring of 2000, four guys will swear off girls, then promptly meet and fall in love with the four girls anyway. If the plot sounds more like Hollywood than Shakespeare (it shouldn't), it will be both-- if Kenneth Branagh can work his special brand of magic. It's "Love's Labour's Lost" done as a grand thirties musical, with top hats and tap-dancing. And the music of Cole Porter.

If Porter never deserted musical comedy, then Branagh stands ready to rally the ranks. Like Saint Subber, the co-producer of Broadway's current Tony-Award winning blockbuster revival of Porter's "Kiss Me Kate", Branagh admired the performers Lunt and Fontanne, and has been itching to do a musical since he was a tot in Belfast. If musical comedy uses a lack of realism to set the scene, well, all the better. Using the music of Porter--and Irving Berlin and George Gershwin--Branagh can create a glamorous make-believe world, where people not only burst into song, they speak the speech of Shakespeare. It sounds romantic already.

In "Love's Labour's Lost," Branagh tips his top hat to musical theatre, with the help of best friend and composer Patrick Doyle, who has written up to three-minute introductions to each song and an underscore for the film. A blend of MGM/Busby-Berkeley/Astaire-Rogers influences, Branagh's film harkens back to more traditional musical comedy.

It might surprise some that the first film from Branagh's newly-formed Shakespeare Film Company is a musical comedy. A RADA-trained and successful West End and RSC stage actor first, Branagh is often credited with the renaissance of Shakespeare on film after making his 1989 version of "Henry V "--his first film--at age 28. His full-length "Hamlet" showed us just how seriously he takes filmmaking; it's a fully-realized masterwork. But he's an entertainer, too, who has tap-danced on top of a giant record player on the British television series "Thompson." He has continued to pull rabbits out of Shakespeare's hat, coming close, in spirit, to musical comedy with his delightful " Much Ado About Nothing" in 1993.

The new film is the first installment of a three-picture deal between Branagh's Shakespeare Film Co. and the film company Intermedia. Miramax, a "Broadway" studio if there is one, and Harvey Weinstein believe the veteran adapter has something up the sleeve of his tuxedo.

Setting Shakepeare's comedy about love to these musical gems, and dressing it in the fashion of the thirties seems such an obvious choice, when you think about it. Coupling the poetry of Shakespeare with songs like "I'd Rather Charleston", "Cheek to Cheek", "Let's Face the Music and Dance", "They Can't Take That Away From Me", "The Way You Look Tonight" seems a marriage already made in heaven. Throw in some handsome gents, a few proper canes, and it's a party. When it comes to puttin' on the ritz, Branagh knows there's no business like show business.

Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost" had a premiere in New York City on June 5, at the Paris theatre, with the cast attending. The film opened the Newport International Film Festival on June 6th. Branagh appeared to introduce the film. On May 18, the film opened the 26th Seattle International Film Festival 2000. Without marketing from Miaramax, it continues to make its way around the United States. Calling your local art house or cinema may reward you with news of scheduled showings.

The release dates for "Love's Labour's Lost" are March 24 in the UK, April 14 in Italy, April 7 in Spain, May 25 in Germany, June 9 in the US, June 30, 2000 in Canada, and December 16, 2000 in Japan.

For The Making of Love's Labour's Lost, click here.

Click here for the film's official website.

Click here for Variety magazine's review.

More links at the bottom of this page.

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BBC Interview with Branagh about Love's Labour's Lost

Kenneth Branagh has taken Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and turned it into a thirties musical starring Alicia Silverstone, Adrian Lester, Paul Whitehouse and Richard Briers. Film 99 caught up with its star and director on the set at Shepperton Studios.

BBC: This is a fantastic set - what is it meant to be?

Branagh: Well, it's a kind of fantasy Oxbridge. It's actually inspired by some colleges at Yale University, where in fact, having built their college several hundred years after most of the Oxbridge colleges, they then distressed them. They actually poured acid down the walls and made them all much older looking, so there's a certain ye olde thing which is also redolent of some kind of movie college sets that we wanted to evoke for this musical.

BBC: I knew you were doing another Shakespeare, but I was surprised that it was a musical. Why did you decide to do that?

Branagh: Well, ‘Love's Labour’s Lost’ is on one level a very simple, romantic comedy. It’s not boy meets girl, it’s four boys meet four girls and it’s the stuff of light romantic comedy and it talks about all the same kind of subjects that are covered in marvellous songs in the '30s and '40s - Cole Porter, Irvin Berlin and Jerome Cale and Gershwin all talk about the same things. They all talk about love being rather heavenly, so we can use numbers like ‘Heaven - I'm in Heaven (Dancing Cheek to Cheek)’. We've trimmed it a bit, because it was very much of its time - somebody once called it a fashionable play three hundred years out of fashion - we've cut the bits you don't understand and we've put songs in! And they hopefully do the same thing, which is show the battle of the sexes. Can men ever be trusted? Can they be constant to one thing ever? A question women have been known to ask over the years.

BBC: And do we have a conclusion at the end of the film?

Branagh: Well, being Shakespeare, it's a bit ambiguous. He gets the boys and girls together and then puts a large question mark over the future of their relationships, but along the way he has a lot of fun with them, again, strange for human nature to be presented this way, but the women have a great deal of fun teasing the guys about this oath which they've taken in the beginning of the play to study for three years and to give up women. So you can imagine how long that lasts - about 30 seconds!

BBC: Yes, I can't imagine many students adhering to the vow of celibacy!

Branagh: Exactly. Well Shakespeare knew that that was going to be the case 400 years ago, so these guys have lost it immediately, then they're tortured about breaking their oath and they don't want to be found out by each other, and of course they all are, and then the women enjoy taking the mickey out of this humongously, at the same time being very thrilled by their attentions, because study, which they thought was going to turn them into wonderful writers and artists, doesn't, but love does. They're suddenly writing songs and sonnets and in this case singing songs and bursting into carefully rehearsed dance routines.

BBC: I'm sold already! What were the different challenges in shooting a lot of performers in such intricate dance sequences?

Branagh: Well, we wanted actors who had some singing and dancing ability, and nobody was - bar a few notable exceptions -trained dancers or trained singers. Everybody came in it with huge appetites for doing it, but that took a lot of work. Practice and rehearsal. There are a lot of ensemble numbers, so everybody said it's great - you're in a team, but you're also terrified that you're going to be the one that messes up. "Ok cue the three minute un-interrupted take with the 25 people all having a tap dance at the same time - and action!" So the concern about messing up was great. We tried to celebrate a lot of musical forms. The colour in this is very vivid, like from MGM musicals in the '50s, (we should be so lucky!) But inspired by people like Minnelli and Stanley Donen but we wanted to try and find our own style.

BBC: You can't just light blue touch paper and retire! You use Minnelli's technique of moving camera work - is that led by the tempo of the music?

Branagh: Yes, we spent a long time trying to work out what was the right tempo. The thing about the play is it's very light and funny. It makes all its poignant and heartbreaking moments very lightly indeed and so they're quick. The tempo of those films is quite quick and racy. We wanted to try and give the audience a bit of the experience of dancing.

BBC: Tell me about the cast.

Branagh: We have Alicia Silverstone playing the Princess of France and she's going to surprise a lot of people with a terrific performance. Very agile and adroit with this language and a wonderful twinkle that we've seen so beautifully used in movies before. Natascha McElhone, who was in ‘The Truman Show’, who gives a fantastically funny, passionate performance. They're all quite beautiful. Emily Mortimer's a terrific British actress, then we have Nathan Lane who's a great Broadway star, he gives us Costard, the kind of crazed Vaudevillian who sings ‘There's No Business Like Show Business’. A quite deliciously potty, moving, hysterically funny performance from Tim Spall, who plays Don Armado, a fantastical Spaniard who's unable to use one sentence when 15 will do - none of them making any coherent sense, yet somehow you understand what he says. We have Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers, we have Adrian Lester, a fantastic young actor from here who's in ‘Primary Colours’, he’s a wonderful dancer. Alessandra Novolla, who's a young American actor, playing the king, who's just drop dead handsome. And they've all, in this pretty extraordinary esprit de corps, thrown themselves at singing and dancing and doing what the picture's trying to do, which is a naff old cliche, but give pleasure. We've had enormous pleasure out of doing it and we really want to put a smile on the face of the audience.

BBC: Are you asking the audience to come to it with the innocence of audiences in the '30s and '40s?

Branagh: Well it's an interesting point. I think the play, unique among Shakespeare, is remarkably uncynical about love. He doesn't witter on about women being shrewish and irritating, he doesn't knock the institution of marriage, he's remarkably uncynical and deeply romantic about the fun of being in love and he has fun at the expense of men chiefly and the idiocy, the foolishness that they throw themselves into, in the grip of love fever.

BBC: Having done this once, will you be seeking out other opportunities to put on tights?

Branagh: Well I am a tights wearer by nature, as you know, in the classical world of mincery - I've minced often with the ancient texts of William Shakespeare. I've enjoyed singing and dancing in this and who knows? It's bloody hard work in its way and I've certainly found that to be the case. The public will decide and we'll see!

BBC: Can we look forward to Macbeth the musical?

Branagh: It's not impossible! A rap Macbeth or something. Let me just make a note of that.

BBC: Maybe the basketball version of Othello! Why has everyone gone Shakespeare nuts?

Branagh: It's hard to explain except that there seems to have been a new development among young film makers. There seems to have been a definite shift away from the theatrical connection that maybe previous generations of Shakespeare film making had, and now the plays seem to be up for grabs and I think Baz Luhrmann's ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had a lot to do with that, that was radical and ground-breaking and McKellen playing ‘Richard the Third’. It just shook the place up a bit and made it feel as though they were there to be re-invented with all the things that worked still - good stories, good characters, but that modern film making could take advantage of and could plug into whatever people felt could be something people identified with. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had an incredible connection to the violent heart of the play - it had the energy of the play and it was completely re-interpreted. Different from the Zeffirelli one of 30 years ago, but perfectly valid. So, it feels like film makers have been given a lease of life because the audiences seem ready to go for it and I think ‘Shakespeare in Love’ has had a big impact. It can be cool, it can be funny. Maybe it's a fashion thing and the bubble will burst and we'll get fed up with it, but for the time being it seems like people are ready to give it a go, because it might be a good movie.

BBC: Can you think of any of the lesser ones that might not translate to film?

Branagh: Well in fact ‘Love's Labour’s Lost’ wasn't performed in the theatre for 200 years after Shakespeare died, something I had to explain to financiers on this one! ‘Titus Andronicus’ has been made into a film, there's a ‘Coriolonus’ brewing. Things like ‘King John’, ‘Three Parts of Henry VI’, ‘Pericles’ would be a toughie, there's a million sea voyages, so I think you need Jerry Bruikheimer to give us his ‘Pericles’, he's the only one who'd be able to afford it.

BBC: Maybe Kevin Costner could put the fins back on for that?

Branagh: Very possibly. It's a good idea - again I'm going to write that down and I'll get back to you.

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Empire Magazine
"Love's Labour's Lost"

"Branagh does the Bard once again, this time paying tribute to 30s musicals at the same time.

"Combining Shakespeare with some of the finest moments from the Cole Porter back catalogue may sound a tad curious but Love's Labour's Lost, Kenneth Branagh's latest effort to bring the Bard to the cinemagoing masses, promises to deliver just that. Partially inspired by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, this tuneful interpretation of one of the scribe's more frivolous hours marks his most ambitious Shakespeare project yet.

" 'The plot of the play is quite silly. It's about the idiotic things you do when you fall in love,' explains Branagh. 'There's a real parallel with the lighthearted comedies of the 30s and 40s which can be very poignant. There are very passionate moments when it's so powerful you just have to sing.'

"The story follows four French noblemen (Branagh, Matthew Lillard, Alessandro Nivola and Adrian lester) who intend to give up female company for three years to concentrate on study. Then the arrival of four lovely ladies (Alicia Silverstone, Natasha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo and Emily Mortimer) jeopardizes their plans.

"With Silverstone's box-office clout on board, Branagh recruited upcoming actors from both sides of the Atlantic. 'I picked people I thought were talented, then asked the $64,000 question about singing and dancing. I just hoped they were being honest.' Although Lillard later confided to Empire, 'I can't sing to save my life...'

"The cast went through an intense three-week performance boot camp before the eight-week shoot at Shepperton, while two-thirds of the ornate dialogue was discarded to make way for ten songs. Shakespeare fans might be up in arms, but, unlike his faithful four-hour Hamlet, Branagh hopes this film has a broad appeal.

" 'I don't know if we can live up to the great musicals, but in our own style this is an attempt to deliver the sheer pleasure that they did,' he explains. 'People will either love it or hate it, but if you go with it I defy people not to smile by the time they come out."

(Thanks to Catherine)

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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 an interview with composer Patrick Doyle on the music in Love's Labour's Lost and more, click here. You'll have to scroll down quite a bit past Radiohead entries.

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.

More on Love's Labour's Lost:

Surfing With the Bard: Love's Labour's Lost

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