Branagh's 'Labour' of Love is Lovely
The Hollywood Reporter, June
by Martin A. Grove
*thanks to film lover
Lovely "Labour:" With
the year only half-gone, it's still a little early to call Kenneth
Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost" one of the year's
best films. It's not, however, a moment too soon to call the
Miramax release to the attention of anyone hoping to find a terrific
summer movie for adults.
Branagh turns Shakespeare's "Labour"
into a sexy, glamorous 1930s-style romantic musical comedy, marrying
the Bard's words to show-stopping songs by Cole Porter, Irving
Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern that play like
they were always meant to be there. Included are classics like
"I Get a Kick Out of You," "The Way You Look Tonight,"
"Cheek to Cheek" and "There's No Business Like
Show Business." The singing and dancing is by Branagh and
his merry troop of players, including Nathan Lane, Adrian Lester,
Matthew Lillard, Natascha McElhone, Alessandro Nivola, Alicia
Silverstone and Timothy Spall.
Adapted for the screen and directed
by Branagh, "Labour" was produced by David Barron and
Branagh. Its executive producers are Guy East, Nigel Sinclair,
Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein and Alexis Lloyd. It begins its
run Friday via Miramax, opening in New York and Los Angeles and
a week later in Toronto, where Branagh was busy doing promotion
when he called to tell me about his new "Labour" of
"I'm doing my Toronto day
today on one of these whistle-stop tours," he explained.
"Five cities last week and five this week. Just banging
the drums for the film."
The picture came about, he said,
"through love of the musical genre and love of the play.
I've seen, historically, a big history of Shakespeare and music
working in the theater. The two things, in this case, share the
same subject matter -- romantic love. 'Love's Labour's Lost'
is so witty about love and so silly. It's a very thin plot. It's
a plot not unlike the plot of many romantic musicals. It's a
boy meets girl/boy loses girl plot, this time times by four in
Shakespeare's play , but with this gallery of comic characters.
It just seemed to me that if you could combine the joy of them
both and the wit of them both, that you'd give people something
very unusual which, for sure, was aimed at putting a smile on
their faces. And in a genre that hasn't worked in a spectacular
way, really, for the last 30, probably 40, years. All of that
was a big challenge and an excitement -- to get out a top hat
and tails and see if we could do something that wasn't just a
sort of retro appeal, or just nostalgia, but actually might surprise
people and feel rather unusual."
To make that happen, he told
me, it was necessary to begin by getting the play, itself, in
shape: "The first thing was to try and cut 'Love's Labour's
Lost,' which is a long and very dense play and one of the reasons
that in its full form it's seen relatively rarely in the theater.
(The goal was) to cut it in order to find a structure that could
be believable as a musical, where you felt transitions from the
play to the songs were organic. Where a character had reached
a pitch of emotion -- either frustration or love or delight --
that meant words were no longer enough, they had to sing. In
singing (Cole) Porter, we were creating a musical rather than
doing a play that had numbers tacked on. Given as Shakespeare
refers so regularly to song and dance and often includes both
in his plays, particularly the comedies, that happened with more
ease and straightforwardness than I had imagined."
Selecting the type of music that
would really fit the movie posed its own challenges. "I
found moments where I thought songs could work, where just as
we feel in romantic love when you get those urges to burst into
song and really wish that an orchestra was playing while you
were trying to woo whoever it was," Branagh pointed out.
"We have those moments. Then the songs became key. We tried
to write them. You can imagine how long it took for me to realize
that my lyrics would not be sitting nicely next to Shakespeare's.
It took about 10 minutes to get myself out of that job. Then
we looked at the lesser known works of classic popular composers
of the mid-20th century, including many of the ones we have in
the movie. That seemed not to work, as well.
"It seemed as though we
needed classic songs to match this classic text, songs that in
themselves were very complete, that had the beauty of memorable
and instantly affecting melodies. And, crucially, had this same
sort of linguistic characteristic of being witty, of playing
with rhyme and of being able to isolate tiny bits of human behavior
-- from 'the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea'
-- and parlay them into sort of an observation about something
universal in the human condition that affects people very profoundly.
In both cases, the play and the songs do this with such a lightness
of touch, with such a delicacy, with such a carefree and insouciant
quality that it's so, in relative terms, I think, innocent and
youthful. That particular marriage seemed to me perfectly appropriate.
I think you could argue strongly that the wit of Porter, Berlin,
Kern and Gershwin in its own vernacular is very possible to sit
next to Shakespeare and not be embarrassed."
For the film, Branagh set Shakespeare's
story in 1939, just prior to World War II. The story gets underway
with King of Navarre (Nivola) and three friends (Branagh, Lillard
and Lester) taking an oath to give up women for three years so
as to devote themselves to studying philosophy. The unexpected
arrival of the princess of France (Silverstone) and three beautiful
attendants (McElhone, Emily Mortimer and Carmen Ejogo) on a diplomatic
visit throws the men's plan into disarray. Unable to resist the
ladies, each of the men works secretly to seduce his favorite.
Asked how he managed to get such
a unique film made, Branagh replied, "Nigel Sinclair and
Guy East at Intermedia approached me. I knew them both. I'd worked
with Guy on 'Henry V' when he was at Majestic (Films). I knew
Nigel over the years. Both said, 'We want you to make some Shakespeare
films for Intermedia.' They were surprised, but still on board,
when I said, 'Well, the first one I'd like to do -- of what he
hoped would be a three picture deal -- would be 'Love's Labour's
Lost' and it would be a musical. I said, 'We must give people
something new every time. We must earn the right to do these
films. We must communicate with the audience. It's not about
just chalking up all the plays or a kind of hollow, ego trip
for me. This is the one I want to do.'
"They were right behind
that and, very quickly, they assembled partners -- Pathe in Britain
and Miramax in the U.S. plus a number of foreign distributors
who came on board for three pictures. And so it became a very
good collaboration. Both Nigel and Guy and Alexis Lloyd, who's
now moved on from Pathe in London, and (Miramax co-chairman)
Harvey Weinstein were all strongly part of the collaborative
process." Intermedia, based in London and Los Angeles, has
been involved in developing, financing and distributing a wide
range of films including "Sliding Doors," "Hilary
and Jackie" and "Where the Heart Is."
What projects will follow "Labour?"
"I hope very much that the next one will be 'Macbeth,'"
Branagh replied. "When I finish this promotional tour, I'll
be going to work on the screenplay for that. I hope we shoot
that at some point next year. That would be the next one. Beyond
that, I'm not quite sure. But I feel very certain that we will
make all three. There's a terrific commitment, I must say, from
distributors around the world for them. I've traveled quite widely
to promote the film. I've been and I am continually amazed and
humbled but delighted by the lives that these films have with
students and with educators and at film festivals."
Shooting a film with musical
scenes, he noted, was "hugely challenging. We were very
lucky that presenting the film in the U.S. and Stanley Donen
and Martin Scorsese. I had a chance to talk to Martin, particularly,
ahead of shooting about some of the practicalities of shooting
musicals -- how to work with play-back, how to rehearse without
injury, how to plan for shooting sequences without fatigue for
the actors and yet giving yourself options in terms of filming.
All of that became logistically a huge challenge. We rehearsed
for three and a half weeks and we shot for about seven weeks,
which is very, very tight for a show like this. But when you're
working on this kind of challenging material the budget gets
squeezed. So all the help you can have in planning becomes hugely
important. But we had a very committed cast who really threw
themselves into all three things -- being natural with the Shakespeare
and giving the singing and the dancing all the expertise they
possibly could, but with primarily a human quality that would
come out of the character. We definitely cast it in terms of
appropriateness for the Shakespeare and then let the rest of
it be formed by that rather than starting the other way round
and casting, primarily, singers and dancers."
Although some of the cast members
don't have singing and dancing credits that immediately come
to mind, Branagh pointed out, "To some extent (they had
experience) in various ways. Certainly, at drama school. Many
of us who had gone through drama school, had done quite a lot
of singing and dancing -- not for a while -- and girls, thank
God, have a sort of early or adolescent period of having gone
through dancing. That was true of people like Alicia Silverstone
and Natascha McElhone. But in all cases, it was a little bit
of starting again as an ensemble to find the discipline and find
the muscles, indeed, to really go at it for film."
Branagh's own drama studies were
done at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his honors included
the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal. Early in 1982, about six
weeks after leaving RADA, he made his professional debut in London's
West End in "Another Country," winning the most promising
newcomer award given by the Society of West End Theaters. In
1984 he became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing
the title role in "Henry V" and later appearing as
the King of Navarre in "Love's Labour's Lost" and as
Laertes in "Hamlet."
His career went on to include
numerous roles on the stage in England, including "Much
Ado About Nothing," directed by Judi Dench, "Hamlet,"
directed by Derek Jacobi and John Osborne's "Look Back in
Anger," again directed by Dench. He subsequently undertook
a world tour with two Shakespeare productions that he directed
and starred in -- "King Lear" and "A Midsummer
Branagh's debut as a film director
came in 1988 with "Henry V," which he adapted to the
screen and in which he also played the title role. The critically
acclaimed film received many honors, including a British Oscar
or BAFTA Award for Branagh as best director and the Evening Standard
award for best film. He followed that with "Dead Again,"
his first Hollywood film, which he directed and co-starred in
with Emma Thompson. Among his other films are "Much Ado
About Nothing," starring Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton
and Thompson, which was screened in competition at the 1993 Cannes
Film Festival and "Hamlet," starring Branagh in the
title role and such stars as Julie Christie, Billy Crystal and
Robin Williams. Branagh received a Screen Actors Guild Award
for best supporting actor for his work in Oliver Parker's 1996
How did Branagh feel about plunging
into song in "Labour?" "Challenged," he told
me. "I enjoy singing and dancing very much. I'm not a natural
at either, but if I work hard I can get it together. It was helpful
doing it to be amongst a company who were being asked to work
very long hours to do often physically quite demanding things
and mentally quite stimulating things. So to be in amongst it,
sleeves rolled up, was quite helpful. When you would do a number
like 'There's No Business Like Show Business' with 25 people
all trying to tap dance and move at the same time -- with ages
ranging from 18 to 65 -- it was quite helpful, as was sadly the
case, that the first person to mess up in a long three minute
take 10 seconds from the end was me! There was a mixture of terrific
support for me, because the company was very close, glee that
it was me and massive relief that it wasn't them."
The film was shot, he said, "on
soundstages at Shepperton (outside London). Indeed, that was
part of the style that we were aping from classic film musicals.
We wanted a heightened realism, so we built a sort of fantasy
Oxbridge set, the kind of movie college that I'd seen so many
times and that allowed us, also, to use very vivid colors, primary
colors that were part of that Technicolor palette that people
like Stanley Donen used so brilliantly that, I think, just signaled
to the audience that, 'You're a slightly heightened reality here.
It will be OK when people start to burst into song.' It offered
us control being on a soundstage in a way that would have been
impossible on location given our schedule." The film's seven-week
shoot, he added, was done on a budget that was only "around
the $14 million mark."
There hasn't been a lot of action
on the movie musical front in recent years, although Woody Allen
tackled the genre -- quite well, I thought -- in "Everyone
Says I Love You" in 1996, working with a non-musical cast
including such stars as Allen, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda and Julia
Roberts. "I found the very last sequence of that with all
the film romantic comedy musical vocabulary -- the banks of the
Seine (where Allen and Hawn are dancing late at night and Hawn
actually begins to take flight over the scene), the moonlight,
the glamorous city, her in a glamorous gown, him in a tux --
that did seem to me a world in which the audience did feel comfortable
to watch people singing and dancing," Branagh observed.
"And, I think, we've given some version of that at greater
length. I sometimes think the seriousness of subject matter that's
been reflected in stage musicals over the last 20 years or so
hasn't been something up to now that people have found themselves
intimately comfortable with. So I hope we found a way to give
them a musical that isn't just a throwback, isn't just nostalgia,
but is something different. I've seen the film play with people
who are seven to 70. It's particularly interesting to see how
the kids have gone for it. They've been absolutely rapt. You
know, all this music that's (classics) to us, is all entirely
new (to youngsters)."
Besides making use of classic
show tunes, "Labour" also employs 1930s style newsreels
to tell its story. "The newsreel device (is used) in order
to tell the story and make it clear in this cut version exactly
what happens to whom and when both in its immediate effect, which
is to let them where they are plot-wise, and also works in its
tone for letting people know from the word go that they can have
fun," he said. "So we sent those signals out very early
on. I think at 93 minutes, you get to tap your toes and laugh
and cry and do all the things that pictures were supposed to
Asked where the idea of creating
pseudo-newsreel footage came from, he explained, "It was
a kind of voice that was part of my childhood. You have your
English version and American version (of the newsreel form).
It was very familiar to me. I enjoyed working on that. It was
an idea that we came up with very late in the day that became
the sort of unifying gel that let people know where they were
and let them know it was funny, that we could have visual fun
Moreover, Branagh said, he made
a point of employing for the newsreel narration the sort of clipped
British accents that were heard in movies made in the '30s and
'40s. "A kind of incredibly chirpy, silly almost sending
itself up at the same moment quality (that) seemed to me pretty
much in tune with what we were doing," he said. Martin Grove
is seen Mondays on CNN's "ShowBiz Today" and heard
weekdays at 1:55 p.m. on KNX-AM in Los Angeles.
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