A Real 'Labour' of Love

Bergen Record, June 10 2000
by Jim Beckerman

Let purists complain about the transformation of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" into a Thirties-style song-and-dance movie.

Personally, Kenneth Branagh doesn't give a hey nonny nonny or a hi de ho.

"One of my absolute tenets is my resistance to those who are proprietorial about Shakespeare," says the director-star, dressed in stylish black, a la Hamlet, for a recent interview in Manhattan.

"I continue, and it is not false modesty, to view myself not as an expert at this, but simply an enthusiast, an interpreter of Shakespeare -- who is for everybody," he says.

Well, maybe Branagh is being a little modest at that.

The foremost movie interpreter of Shakespeare since Laurence Olivier has approached the Bard from many angles -- from his revisionist warts-and-all portrayal of an English hero in his highly praised debut film "Henry V" (1988) to his lively take on "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993) to his epic "Hamlet" (1996), which broke all the rules simply by its awesome fidelity to Shakespeare's text, all 242 minutes of it.

In "Love's Labour's Lost," which opened Friday, he's gone to the opposite extreme.

Only about a third of Shakespeare's original play remains in this 1930s-dress version that clocks in at barely more than 90 minutes. Nor is that the most radical departure from Shakespeare's 1598 comedy -- the first work to be published under the Shakespeare byline.

The high points of the film are when Branagh, Alicia Silverstone, Nathan Lane, Adrian Lester, and the lords and ladies of the court of Navarre break out of their iambic pentameter to croon and tap their way through such classic songs as Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business," Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight," and George and Ira Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

No, it's not just a stunt, Branagh says.

There is actually the ghost of a Thirties movie musical hidden in this early Shakespeare comedy about four noblemen (Branagh, Lester, Matthew Lillard, and Alessandro Nivola) who vow to give up love for three years, and four noble ladies (Silverstone, Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejogo, adn Natascha McElhone) who help them change their minds.

Branagh knows, because in addition to being a Shakespeare enthusiast, he's also a musical comedy buff. "They were always on television," says the 40-year-old Irish-born, British-trained actor. "Back in pre-cable days, they were the staple Saturday-Sunday afternoon product of BBC 2. I saw endless musicals."

He also cut his song-and-dance teeth at the age of 19 in a drama school production of "Lady Be Good," from which he salvaged the little-known Gershwin gem "I'd Rather Charleston," the opening number of "Love's Labour's Lost."

There are striking similarities, he says, between the romantic comedies of the Globe Theatre era and the 1930s Astaire-Rogers musical comedies that played Radio City Music Hall. Both take place against a background of upper-class luxury. Both feature romantic mix-ups, suave heroes and heroines, low-comedy relief.

"It's boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl," he says. "You willingly embrace the corniness of it, the predictability of it. With a plot like this, when the king and others start saying they're gonna give it up for three years, you know, you just know what's gonna happen. A 7-year-old could figure it out."

And the similarities don't end there.

In this film, Lane's character, Costard, is patterned after the wise-guy sidekicks played in 1930s movies by Victor Moore and other vaudevillians. Holofernia (Geraldine McEwan) is the sort of lively middle-aged lady played in the Astaire films by Helen Broderick. One comic staple of the Astaire films, the pompous foreigner, has his counterpart in the Spaniard Don Armado (Timothy Spall), with his ridiculous Salvador Dali moustache.

"Our ultimate aim, in the spirit of the films we were inspired by, was to make it seem effortless," Branagh says. "To make it seem that we just rolled up and did it."

No easy trick, that. Because in addition to having such great talents as Astaire and Rogers on tap, the 1930s Hollywood studio factories were geared to the mass-production of musicals, with the best directors, choreographers, and music arrangers under contract.

Since the decline of movie musicals in the early 1970s, the occasional attempts to revive them ("At Long Last Love," "Evita," "Everyone Says I Love You") have mostly been exercises in reinventing the wheel. So it was for "Love's Labour's Lost,'" where everything had to be done from scratch.

"This, for me, was a much greater challenge than doing 'Hamlet,'" Branagh says.

To prepare for this $16 million film, Branagh created a three-week "boot camp" where actors unfamiliar with musical comedy could be taught to sing and dance, and singers unfamiliar with Shakespeare could be taught to declaim.

"Eight o'clock in the morning we got the company together for two hours of singing and dancing," Branagh says. "Then each was carrying their individual rehearsal schedules to go from singing and dancing to Shakespeare, depending on the individual."

With so difficult a project, Branagh was grateful to get the endorsement of one man who really mattered: Stanley Donen, the director of such legendary MGM musicals as "On the Town" and "Singin' in the Rain." The credits for "Love's Labour's Lost" list Donen (along with Martin Scorsese) for "presenting" the film -- an honorary title more than anything else, Branagh says. "It was particularly thrilling to get Donen's thumbs up," Branagh says.

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