After a series of career miscues, Kenneth Branagh returns to the scene of his success - Shakespeare, this time with music

By Marshall Fine, Gannett Press, June 2000
* Thanks to Jane Land

When Kenneth Branagh decided to make a musical out of a Shakespearean comedy, he searched the canon of popular song, hoping to unearth little-known gems with which to decorate the film. But, he finally decided, a classic play demands classic tunes. And, the songs he chose were classics for a reason.

"I didn't start out looking for famous ones," Branagh says, almost apologetically, of the songs he selected for "Love's Labour's Lost." "But I understood why these songs were so special after I tried to put other songs next to Shakespeare."

Which is how "Cheek to Cheek," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and a half-dozen other songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin wound up in "Love's Labour's Lost," one of Shakespeare's least-seen plays.

For Branagh, it's a return to his movie-making roots. "Henry V" launched Branagh in 1989 as a cinematic Shakespeare interpreter. In the intervening decade, he has directed film versions of "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet" and hopes to make several more. Still, the wunderkind status he enjoyed early on - when he was hailed as a fin de siecle Orson Welles - was tarnished somewhat by a handful of missteps, both personally and professionally.

His personal life hit the gossip columns when he divorced actress Emma Thompson, thus rending England's golden couple. He subsequently became involved with actress Helena Bonham Carter, though their relationship reportedly ended last year.

He also suffered critical vitriol as a director for his much-derided film "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." As an actor, he was judged less culpable for such flops as "Theory of Flight" and "Wild Wild West."

So Branagh is back where he started: making Shakespeare accessible to the masses. Now 40, he has the same pinkish Irish complexion and sandy blond hair; and though he's still trimly sturdy, there are a few more lines around eyes that crinkle with conspiratorial amusement when he talks.

To get this particular movie made took his considerable powers of persuasion. "The sales pitch went like this," Branagh says as he proceeds to act out both sides of the conversation:
"What do you want to do?"
"Love's Labour's Lost."
"Never heard of it."
"That's because it wasn't performed for a couple hundred years. Oh, and I want to do it as a musical."
"Oh, great - so it's not only Shakespeare but done in a genre that hasn't worked in films for 30 or 40 years."

The idea, Branagh says, was to capture the frothy appeal of the kind of 1930's musical that made Fred Astaire a star. Indeed, on the first day of rehearsal with his young cast, Branagh screened the Astaire classic "Top Hat," to give them a feel for what they were about to do.

"He makes you feel you could do that," Branagh says of Astaire. "You get carried away by the fantastic effortlessness and grace. You watch that film closely and there are two or three numbers that were shot in one take. It's a breathtaking feat of athleticism. And yet, while he's being brilliant, he doesn't show off."

Branagh hopes some of that same sense of fun comes through in "Love's Labour's Lost," in which he also stars. He felt music was the perfect complement to this work because the plot reminded him of the lightweight stories that served as the frameworks for movie musicals in their heyday.

In simplest terms, the play is about four male friends who take a vow of chastity in order to concentrate on their studies - immediately before meeting the four girls of their dreams. So each tries to woo his chosen female without his friends finding out.

"Those musicals are always about romantic love, usually instantaneous, where the fun comes not from what will happen next - you usually know - but how," Branagh says. "I felt the essential daftness of the plot of this play, for which I always had a lingering affection, resembled that of a musical. It was a question of creating a cut version that could create an organic musical structure."

His cast includes a variety of British and American actors, including Nathan Lane, Mike Leigh favorite Timothy Spall, newcomers such as Alessandro Nivola, Matthew Lillard and Adrian Lester - and Alicia Silverstone. Branagh knows that some people may arch an eyebrow at that particular casting choice, based solely on her performances in "Clueless" and "Batman and Robin."

"But she has an immense spark and vitality," says Branagh, who is rumored to be dating Silverstone, though he has denied it. "She was always utterly present, which is a real gift."

As for his own singing and dancing, Branagh allows, "I'm not a natural - but I do enjoy them very much."

Branagh knows the film will be a tough sell to contemporary audiences, most of which have seen Fred Astaire only on TV, if at all. He's watched the movie with audiences and knows exactly how they will react the first time a character bursts into song.

"There's usually an audible gasp - with people looking around to make sure everyone else is seeing the same thing they are, as though to say, 'Am I really watching this?'" Branagh says.

"What I want people to come away saying is, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have a romantic evening, and to be able to do a few moves that will sweep her off her feet?'"

Branagh pauses, then wonders aloud what Shakespeare would think of this version of his play. It's a subject to which Branagh, whose name is now so inextricably linked with the Bard that he named his production group the Shakespeare Film Company, has devoted a lot of thought.

"Because of the amazing elusiveness of William Shakespeare's biography, we have no idea whether he was a stickler for having actors say the words exactly as he wrote them, or whether he was a rewrite man all the way through," he says.

"My sense is that he was a spectacular realist. He knew that, if a play didn't work, it was off. So I believe he was probably a man who rewrote and considered what would do good business - because that had an effect on his own income."

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