Film Festival's Labor Not Lost on Branagh

Providence Journal, June 6 2000

The actor/director's new film, Love's Labour's Lost , makes its East Coast premiere at the city's international film festival.

It was a night fit for an Englishman. And through the bars of a rain, here he came.

Kenneth Branagh stepped out from beneath his driver's umbrella and under a white tent pitched on Washington Square, nearly unnoticed. Across the street, a hundred or more people stood in a wet, shivery line for the chance to see the East Coast premiere of Love's Labour's Lost .

Branagh, calm and dry in an immaculate blue suit, sized up the scene.

"You've imported a bit of English weather, haven't you?" he said to the few people near him, his British accent serving as introduction. "Coming over the bridge, my driver said, 'There's Newport.' I said, 'Where?'

"But I hear it's lovely," he added. "People do rave about it."

Then he slipped across the street to the Jane Pickens Theater, where he greeted a sold-out house, introduced his new movie, and christened the third annual Newport International Film Festival.

A sprinkle of Hollywood magic returned to Newport last night, and found a city peering out from beneath umbrellas and standing stalwart in yellow slickers. The rain doused any chance of bright lights and top hats, but the dreary weather did not dampen the spirit of a town excited to again be part of a show-biz spectacle.

Retired Vice Admiral Thomas Weschler, the Tall Ships orchestrator, and his wife, Trina, were among the first to stand in the rain outside the venerable Jane Pickens, one of the last single-screen movie houses in Rhode Island.

"I'm here because I love musicals," Trina Weschler said. "And I think this is going to be lovely -- Shakespeare."

Branagh's latest adaptation of the Bard's work sets a 400-year-old comedy to Cole Porter and George Gershwin music in 1930s Europe. The film received chilly reviews from The Providence Journal and the Associated Press yesterday morning. But to some of the people waiting in the lamplight, a work of Branagh could only be art.

"I love his eye. I love his ear. I love his soul," Maureen Barnes, a Newport screenwriter and playwright, said of the Irish-born actor.

Barnes, who said she works part of the year in New York City, marveled to see the spectacle unfolding in her hometown last night.

"Usually you have to go to New York to see something like this," she said. "I'm just thrilled to see anything set in the 1930s. And then Nathan Lane? How can you lose?"

Lane and the film's other stars did not attend the premiere, but the city was stardusted with other theatrical types on the festival's first day.

Two hours before showtime, Tim Daly sat sipping a soft drink in the lobby of the Viking Hotel, looking older than his Diner days but as if he just stepped off the set of Wings.

Daly, who lives in Providence, praised the festival and criticized what he says was skimpy coverage by his hometown paper.

"Anytime you have an international film festival, you're giving yourself an opportunity," he said. "There's always that chance some work will pop out and make a splash on a national or international level."

He said unlike large film festivals such as Sundance, Newport's remains "unadulterated, a true film festival," where thousands can view films they otherwise would not see.

Stephen Lang, Daly's costar in the upcoming fall series The Fugitive , was just returning from judging one of the afternoon's screenings at the Opera House Theater, Jane Pickens's smaller neighbor.

"Hard seats, but had a nice feel to it," he said. "And you know what? It was a good day for a movie."

Organizers hope to spread that feeling across the week.

Through Sunday night, the festival will screen 75 films at the two theaters on historic Washington Square, the small, lamplit park where Stephen Spielberg filmed Amistad . The third edition of Newport's ode to cinema drew three world premieres, some 35 filmmakers, and dozens of people who help make, create or inspire movies.

Organizers saved the best for first. With his new movie scheduled to debut nationally Friday, Branagh was in the midst of a promotional tour and willing to fly from New York to Providence for a brief visit.

He both directs and stars in Love's Labour's Lost , much as he directed and starred in Henry V in 1989, Much Ado About Nothing in 1993 and Hamlet in 1996.

The 600-seat theater was filled when festival co-founder Christine Schomer introduced "really, the man responsible for the Shakespeare revival."

Branagh crossed the stage, sparking an ovation. He complimented Newport, joked about the weather, and described the difficult task of selling a Shakespeare musical to Hollywood executives.

"We did have a wonderful time making it, and I hope it gives you a wonderful time," he said. "I can't think of a nicer place for it to be played than here tonight."

Later, a large crowd attended the festival's opening night gala at Ochre Court, the Gilded Age mansion owned by Salve Regina University. Branagh was already on a plane back to New York.

His movie will show again at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets to that and most of the festival's films are $8 and must be bought at the nearby festival box office, behind the Colony House at 50 Spring St., or through Ticketron.

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