Kenneth Branagh's `Labour' of love

BPI Wire, May 24 2000
by Angela Dawson

Warren Beatty, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and few others can boast that they've appeared in films in which they've worn multiple hats. But Kenneth Branagh gives new meaning to the word multitasking in "Love's Labour's Lost," his latest filmed interpretation of a William Shakespeare play.

In this musical comedy, set in France between the World Wars, the classically trained Branagh tackles singing and dancing as well as producing, directing, starring in and adapting the 400-year-old play for the big screen.

The film is something of a labor of love for the 39-year-old native of Ireland, who says he long wanted to combine his love of music (particularly the classic film musicals of the 1930s and 1940s) with his passion for the Bard. The result is Shakespeare's text combined with classic songs of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

At just over 1.5 hours, "Love's Labour's Lost," with its 10 song-and-dance numbers, including an ensemble "There's No Business" finale, comprises less than a third of the original Shakespeare play. But Branagh says the spirit of the play is intact. The film is scheduled to open June 9.

"When I became interested in Shakespeare, it struck me that so regularly he referred in almost every play -- certainly all of the comedies -- to song and dance," says Branagh. "It was clearly a feature of the way the theater [of Shakespeare's day] worked, with interludes for dancing and singing across much longer performances."

The choice of "Love's Labour's Lost," an early, and infrequently performed Shakespeare comedy, might seem at first an odd choice to adapt for a $16 million movie musical. (It certainly did to potential financers of the film, Branagh admits.) But the tale of love and romance obviously lends itself to musical interpretation, he says.

In it, the young King of Navarre and his three best friends swear an oath to give up women for three years so they can focus on studying philosophy. No sooner do they take their vows than the lovely Princess of France unexpectedly arrives with her three ladies-in-waiting for a diplomatic visit, throwing the men's plan into disarray. The film is framed within a newsreel-type narrative, with big production numbers and colorful costumes a la Busby Berkeley's choreographed films of the '30s and '40s. The musical numbers range from Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush On You" to Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek." There's even an homage to the Esther Williams water ballets.

Branagh, who portrays the king's spirited friend Berowne, assembled an eclectic cast of seasoned Shakespearean performers such as Geraldine McEwan and musical theater veterans like Nathan Lane ("The Birdcage") and Adrian Lester, who starred onstage in Stephen Sondheim's "Company." Musical and Shakespearean novices had to go through a "musical comedy boot camp" prior to the film's production at the Shepperton Studios in London.

"I showed the cast [the 1935 Fred Astaire musical] `Top Hat' on the first day and told them, `Here's what we can't do,'" says Branagh. "We're not superhuman like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but we can be inspired by what's behind it, particularly the carefree quality. But I wanted it to be rough around the edges, which is part of the charm of the piece."

Alicia Silverstone, 23, whose familiarity with Shakespeare was limited to a Shakespeare workshop she'd attended in New England a few years back, stars as the lovesick princess opposite Alessandro Nivola ("Mansfield Park") as the king. Branagh says Silverstone, like another young actor Keanu Reeves, who starred in his 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing," brought "terrific application" to the role.

"The thing [Silverstone] had was naturalism," Branagh says. "She had a lightness of touch, which the play has, which these songs have, and which the film needed to have." (Branagh, formerly married to actress/writer Emma Thompson, and Silverstone were rumored to have been romantically involved, which both have denied.)

"Love's Labour's Lost" is Branagh's eighth movie, his fifth Shakespeare adaptation and the first through his Shakespeare Film Company, which he formed late last year to formalize his commitment to producing Shakespeare on film. Two other filmed versions of Shakespeare plays are in the pipeline, he says, including a present-day adaptation of "Macbeth," which he expects to put into production next year. In the non-Shakespeare genre, he is set to star in the upcoming "Alien Love Triangle" opposite Heather Graham.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Dec. 10, 1960, Branagh and his family moved to Reading, England when he was nine. As a teenager, he became interested in acting after seeing noted British actor Derek Jacobi perform in a stage version of Hamlet. (The two later worked together in Branagh's "Henry V" and "Hamlet.")

Immersing himself in the theater, young Branagh was accepted into the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at 18, where he earned accolades for his work. While attending the drama school, he performed in the chorus in a stage production of George Gershwin's "Lady Be Good." "That was my introduction to the musical format," he fondly recalls. "I had so much fun."

Branagh later entered the Royal Shakespeare Company where he won the Bancroft Gold Medal and other awards. He then landed roles in television and film.

It was his directorial debut in 1989's "Henry V," in which he also starred, which catapulted Branagh to international acclaim. He subsequently directed and starred in other Shakespeare works: "Much Ado About Nothing, "Othello," and a four-hour adaptation of "Hamlet."

Branagh says his goal is to make the Bard more accessible to audiences. Although he is most closely associated with his Shakespeare work, he has acted in a wide range of films, from Woody Allen's "Celebrity" to "Wild, Wild West" to this year's animated "The Road to El Dorado."

Branagh recalls that as a teen-ager, he had an opportunity to perform a soliloquy from Hamlet before Sir John Gielgud, who was the chairman of the performing arts school at the time. "I gabbled so fast," says Branagh, who'd recently heard the news that his old friend had died at the age of 96. "I don't think I've ever been as nervous. He was so kind afterwards. He gave me notes about moments to pause, going slower. He was generally very encouraging."

Years later, Branagh directed Gielgud in a 23-minute short called "Swan Song," about an aging actor who, sitting in a darkened theater, recalls his days onstage and ponders his future. The film won Best Short Subject at the 1992 Academy Awards.

"In it, he does this speech from `Othello,' which I'll never forget. It begins, `Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars, that make ambition virtue!' He does it with such gravity and such sadness. In the same film he does a piece from `Romeo and Juliet,' which is so ..."

Overcome with emotion, the usually talkative Branagh suddenly becomes quiet.

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