Bard Gets Musical Make-over in Berlin

Agence France Presse, February 16 2000
by Marie-Therese Delboulbes

After the rock 'n' roll Bard, it's Shakespeare: The Musical Comedy, as Kenneth Branagh gives the Hollywood treatment to a lesser known work in the English dramatist's canon, "Love's Labours Lost", screened Tuesday at the Berlin Film Festival.

Song and dance are the order of the day in this latest offering in the Branagh Bardathon that features Alicia Silverstone and Branagh himself.

The real stars of the film are the songs themselves, classic numbers by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin.

Older filmgoers will sigh with nostalgia as Shakespeare's characters don their top hat, white tie and tails and lilt their way through such numbers as "I get a kick out of you", or "There's no business like show business."

The film is an old-style Hollywood extravaganza in which the classic text is tweaked to accommodate chorus-line numbers, cheek-to-cheek dancing and other musical comedy set-pieces, with innumerable references to the movies of the 1930s and '40s.

The imaginary Navarre in which Shakespeare set his comedy is transposed to the eve of World War II, a context heightened by the inclusion of several black-and-white newsreel-style inserts purporting to present the day's front page news.

Fans of "Casablanca" will swoon at the sight of the King of Navarre and his companions saying their bitter-sweet farewells in the manner of Humphrey Bogart waiting at the airport while the plane taxis on the tarmac, preparing to fly off with their sweethearts, a pastiche of Ingrid Bergman's departure in the Michael Curtiz classic of 1942.

Even the Marx Brothers get a look-in as Branagh works out his idea, suggested to him while working with Woody Allen in New York on "Celebrity" two years ago.

"Love's Labours Lost" is the Ulsterman's fourth tilt at Shakespeare after his debut feature "Henry V" in 1988, followed by a famous "Much Ado about Nothing" in 1993 and a four-hour full-text version of "Hamlet" in 1996. It is also unlikely to be his last, he says.

Shakespeare has revived as big box-office in recent years, not least with the 1996 Leonardo di Caprio movie "Romeo and Juliet" in which the Bard shared a writing-credit with director Baz Luhrmann.

Luhrmann's rock version of the play, closer to his earlier kitsch movie "Ballroom Dancing" than to the Elizabethan stage, was also featured at the Berlin Film Festival that year.

Quite apart from last year's Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love", a fictional account of the playwright's early life, Shakespeare plays have provided the inspiration for such films as Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard", an account of an actor's approach to the play "Richard III", and a fascist-era "Richard III" written by the classic Shakespearean actor Richard McKellen.

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