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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 06/15/2000, B: Jeffrey Gantz,

School for love

Kenneth Branagh gets an A-plus for his Labour's

by 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 Yull, 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.

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."

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.