Film is a Labor of Love for Kenneth Branagh

Providence Journal, June 6 2000

A screen version of Romeo and Juliet a couple of years ago had Romeo's pals packing pistols. Kenneth Branagh's recent Hamlet put the characters in 19th-century comic operetta uniforms.

So maybe it was inevitable that Branagh would take Love's Labour's Lost, one of William Shakespeare's most obscure plays, and turn the romantic comedy into a 1930s-style movie musical.

Branagh will bring it himself to Newport's Jane Pickens Cinema tonight to kick off the third annual Newport International Film Festival as a favor to Miramax Films head Harvey Weinstein, whose sister-in-law is a big supporter of the festival.

"The idea of doing a play that people didn't really know terribly well -- that alone of all the Shakespeare plays hadn't been performed for about 200 years after his death -- and then that I fancied doing it as a musical, a genre that hasn't worked in any spectacular fashion for about 30 or 40 years, it was indeed a tough sell."

Yet, he found that there were advantages. Because Love's Labour's Lost was unfamiliar to most audiences, it would hold lots of surprises. The play revolves around a king who bands with his courtiers to swear off women for three years, then discovers a princess and her fetching maids at his gates.

"And in terms of musicals, I suspect there's a whole generation or two that haven't seen such films or know such music and will be taken with the difference of it." Branagh has updated the story from the 16th century to 1939, when Europe was on the eve of war, and added tunes by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin that were popular in the '30s.

Startled acceptance

"In fact, in any screening that I've been at," said Branagh, "when the first number starts and people on screen actually burst into song, heads turn because people think, is this happening? I guess we lose a few people, but on the whole, a slow grin emerges on faces and people are shocked or charmed or whatever."

He didn't think it was terribly risky, however, to tinker with the material.

"Over the last 10 years, in the sort of revival of Shakespeare that there's been in filmmaking, there's been more than a bit of tinkering. I think people have welcomed that as a means of, if nothing else, opening up a bit of debate. I've always felt that's useful. Keeps the plays alive. And we still haven't become quite as bold as they were in the 18th century when they were rewriting the end of Romeo and Juliet, putting them together and marrying them. Or keeping King Lear alive at the end.

"And as far as the other kinds of risks, in a way you're lucky if you're in a territory where you're doing something unusual and daring. So that was exciting."

Branagh's own tinkering continued even after Love's Labour's Lost was supposedly completed. He discovered that audiences were confused by the film's plotting. To clarify things and move the story along, Branagh got the idea of turning some footage into a 1930s-style black-and-white newsreel, complete with a melodramatic announcer who is Branagh himself. "It was a sort of 2 o'clock in the morning idea" that worked. "Once people heard that voice they said, 'It's all right. We have our tongues in our cheeks here. Suddenly, everybody knew where they were."

Nor was he afraid to use actors such as Alicia Silverstone who are not known for their familiarity with Shakespeare, let alone for their singing and dancing accomplishments.

The film was cast with actors "who could do Shakespeare with meaning and with clarity and with naturalism and who would be appropriate for the parts. And as long as they were musical and rhythmic to some degree, the challenge for them was to inform the singing and dancing with the sense of character so you didn't feel as though you were suddenly switching into something much, much slicker. I didn't want to see joins between the characters and the singing." Needless to say, there was a lot of rehearsing.

Yet sometimes, he feared, the singers and dancers were getting too good. Branagh himself toned down his rendition of They Can't Take That Away from Me after he had recorded it "on the money," so it wouldn't sound so professional.

Not a hard sell

He didn't have to really sell people like Silverstone on the project, he added. "My experience has been to let the people come to you in order to weed out the folk who are passionate about doing it, who know what the workload's going to be, who share your view about how it should be spoken and not just loving themselves in it. These things get announced and people get in touch. And that means a great deal to me. I didn't want people to do me a favor by being in the film."

Branagh's three-day growth of beard -- which may be longer or missing completely by showtime tonight in Newport -- was a result of being "fed up with cutting my neck open. I was in Minneapolis about three days ago with another piece of tissue paper stuck to my chin and I thought, I'm gonna let this thing go a bit."

It's not, he said, in preparation for his planned production of Macbeth next year which he said would put the play into the present day.

And would it be a musical?

Branagh laughed and said, "It could be on ice."

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