Movie review of Love's Labour's Lost

Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Maybe it's all Cole Porter's fault.

Mr. Porter, you may recall, paid homage to our greatest playwright with the ditty "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare." Now Kenneth Branagh, batting for the Bard, has returned the favor with a showtune-laden Love's Labour's Lost.

Long known for his mission to deliver Shakespeare to the masses – his full-length Hamlet is a marvel of dramatic clarity – Mr. Branagh has gone high concept with his Labour's. Set in 1939, or the same World War II era as the sleekly snarling Ian McKellen/Richard Eyre Richard III, Mr. Branagh's latest is a tangled mix of Hollywood and Broadway musicals, vaudeville comedy and unfortunate hubris.

Some will be delighted with the airy feel and whimsical conception. Others will stare in wonder at an idea that teeters near the brink of disaster. Either way, Love's Labour's Lost might be the most surreal Shakespeare on film since the late Sir John Gielgud went the full Monty for Prospero's Books.

The play itself has a history of stylized and open-ended productions, owing largely to the dearth of plot and heavy reliance on wordplay. The premise actually reads like a sort of Elizabethan sitcom description: The King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and the men of his court (Mr. Branagh as Berowne, Matthew Lillard as Longaville and Adrian Lester as Dumaine) pledge to spend three years in the castle absorbed in study and, more importantly, eschewing the company of women.

But wouldn't ya know it, the foxy French princess (Alicia Silverstone) and her ladies in attendance (Natascha McElhone as Rosaline, Emily Mortimer as Katherine and Carmen Ejogo as Maria) are on their way for a visit. Before you can say "boy/girl, boy/girl," the four pair are smitten and it's time to face the music and dance.

Mr. Branagh has taken an already over-the-top work and sent it awkwardly toward the moon. The concept isn't necessarily bad; Love's Labour's Lost shares a kind of mischievous ebullience with Hollywood's backstage musicals, a gleeful celebration of form over content. But the film's dance numbers, performed by the very capable Mr. Lester and seven actors with 14 left feet between them, become more of a distraction than a complement. It doesn't help that Mr. Branagh's choices fly all over the stylistic map, from a gowns-and-tails "Cheek to Cheek" to an erotic, Fosse-inspired "Let's Face the Music and Dance" that looks like it was spliced in from a very different film.

Between production numbers, borrowed from the likes of Esther Williams and Busby Berkeley, most of the leads manage to navigate through what's left of the language. On the next tier of performances, however, the slapstick is slathered on so thick that it's hard not to doubt Mr. Branagh's confidence in the play.

Nathan Lane seems to be channeling every Marx brother at once as the rustic Costard. Timothy Spall, who made a great Rosencrantz in Mr. Branagh's Hamlet, spits out what sounds like a blend of Spanish and Chinese accents as the lovelorn Don Armado. In continuing his admirable mission to make Shakespeare accessible to the groundlings, Mr. Branagh appears to have pitted his minor players in a misguided scene-stealing competition.

Very little feels right about Love's Labour's Lost, from the use of faux-newsreel footage to the very thin theme of World War II sacrifice. After near-perfect (and quite adventurous) screen adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet and a winning take on Much Ado About Nothing, Mr. Branagh's credit is still sparkling. But here, trying too hard to flesh out a minor comedy, he operates under the assumption that broader is better. So once more unto the breach, Kenneth, and, next time, skip the song and dance.