'Labour' of Love for Ken Branagh

New York Post, June 4 2000
by Jonathan Foreman

When Miramax President Harvey Weinstein introduced Kenneth Branagh at the Cannes premiere of his new film last month, he proclaimed that the English actor/director had "revolutionized how Shakespeare is done on film."

"I wouldn't have made 'Shakespeare in Love' if I hadn't seen his 'Henry V' and 'Hamlet' and 'Much Ado,'" said Weinstein.

Branagh, credited with inspiring a Shakespearean boom, has another go at the Bard with his latest directing effort, "Love's Labour's Lost," in which he also co-stars. It opens Friday.

But this time Branagh has taken a triple risk.

He's decided to direct a relatively difficult, verbally dense Shakespeare comedy. (Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom calls it a "festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display.")

He's cast it with decidedly unShakespearian young stars like Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard in lead roles.

And he's chosen to emphasize the frothy, romantic side of the play, removing difficult dialogue, setting it in the 1930s, and inserting classic songs by Cole Porter, Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.

During an interview at Cannes, Branagh was quick to defend his choices - particularly regarding his cast.

"I like it when any kind of English theatrical tradition is at least challenged by people coming from a completely different viewpoint, maybe with much more experience in film," he said.

"In this case it's an ensemble, and hopefully you arrive at some sort of style that is consistent."

His idea was to find actors who welcomed the challenge of the Bard.

"You have to cast people who really want to be in it and are doing it for more than just vanity or because they like the idea of them being in a Shakespeare thing," he said. "It's much, much too exposing for that."

Branagh, who directed and starred in a revisionist, antiwar "Henry V" in 1989 (when he was only 29), inspired the current Shakespeare craze with his version of "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1993.

That was the production in which he cast not just experienced Shakespearean actors like himself and Emma Thompson, but also Hollywood stars Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves.

About "Love's Labour's Lost," Branagh says that "there is something deeply silly about the play, and I hope we've been deeply silly in the film!"

The lighthearted take on a play that deals with love will appeal to audiences, he believes. "We live in such a cynical age," he said.

As for Silverstone, Branagh liked her approach to the material.

"Alicia Silverstone is a really fine light comedienne," he said. "She has a lightness of touch and vitality that meant she was comfortable with the acting.

"But, as I say, the key thing [in doing Shakespeare on film] is the determination to do it."

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