The Player

Salon, June 9 2000
Charles Taylor

His new musical version of "Love's Labour's Lost" is flawed, but Kenneth Branagh remains our greatest living interpreter of Shakespeare.

Toward the end of Kenneth Branagh's latest Shakespeare adaptation, "Love's Labour's Lost," in which Branagh has drastically cut the text and added songs by the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Dorothy Fields, the cast assembles for a rousing version of Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business." It's perhaps the key scene (not the best scene, mind you) of any Branagh film, a declaration that, no matter whether he's making "Hamlet" or the deliriously romantic tongue-in-cheek thriller "Dead Again," Branagh considers himself a showman. Despite his missteps and excesses, Branagh's showmanship is his glory. It's also why some people can't stand him.

Audiences can accept films that reimagine Shakespeare -- like Baz Luhrmann's wildly uneven and affecting "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" and Michael Almereyda's exquisite new "Hamlet," perhaps because their execution travels far enough from their source to seem their own creatures. But Branagh's fairly faithful adaptations cheerfully muck up the still-cherished division between theatricality and "The Thee-uh-tah." Aiming for people who perhaps have never seen Shakespeare -- or who've suffered through stuffy, sluggish productions -- Branagh realized early on that cap-in-hand reverence wouldn't do him much good. He has allowed American stars to share the screen with trained Shakespearean actors. If that has sometimes failed -- Alicia Silverstone in "Love's Labour's Lost," Robert Sean Leonard in "Much Ado About Nothing," Jack Lemmon in "Hamlet" -- it's also produced terrific performances like those given by Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington in "Much Ado" and Billy Crystal's marvelous gravedigger in "Hamlet" (and, in the same film, the sly-wit of casting Charlton Heston as the Player King -- a hambone playing a hambone).

To the audiences and critics who subscribe to the myth that English actors are inherently superior to American ones, that's a heresy. But it's a greater heresy to stifle Shakespeare in the constraints of "culture." One of the delights of "Shakespeare in Love" was its celebration of Shakespeare as an entertainer who cut across all the boundaries that potentially divide audiences. Branagh wants Shakespeare to be experienced in that same spirit.

I never realized how successful he was until I took my father to see his "Hamlet." My father has a better instinct for movies than most critics I know but he had never been taught Shakespeare in school and had always avoided him. Shakespeare, he thought, was something for "educated" people. Thinking it was time he learned the folly of that attitude, I cajoled him into seeing "Hamlet." As first exposures to Shakespeare go, a four-hour uncut "Hamlet" is a walloping dose. He sat through it enthralled. At the end of the night, I asked him how he liked it. He turned to me looking utterly bereft and said, "I never imagined he'd die."

But even if you knew the play, Branagh's "Hamlet" could seem a revelation. For me, this great, flawed film is the most immediate and emotionally accessible production I've ever seen, the first time the play's mysteries didn't blunt its emotional impact. I went into the film admiring the play; I came out loving it. At times, Branagh's grandiosity runs away with him. Hamlet encounters his father's ghost amidst an array of special effects in which the earth itself breaks apart emitting sulfurous gasses. And, ending the first half with Hamlet's "How all occasions do inform against me" speech, Branagh loses the force of the words by pulling the camera back throughout the speech to reveal a massive vista of the Dane against Fortinbras' advancing army. Still, the scope of that shot can knock you dizzy. The bigness is also integral to the film's greatness. For Branagh, the film's scale is simply a reflection of the scale of the story's passions. He stages Claudius' announcement of his marriage to Gertrude at court, jammed with onlookers and all kinds of pomp. (If any of us live to see a Gertrude or Claudius to equal Derek Jacobi and Julie Christie, we will be blessed.) In the midst of this, the camera suddenly pans to the right to reveal, behind all the crowds, at the end of a corridor, Hamlet, clad in velvety black, as physically separate from the celebration as he is psychically separate. It's a simple device and yet it signals us that the passions roiling inside this man will soon equal and eventually dwarf the pageantry we've been regaled with. Branagh's Hamlet never loses the name of action. When he is thwarted in his deeds the action comes from the knife's-edge sharpness of his line readings. His words mock and wound and draw blood and yet the bitterness never obscures that this mourning son is in intolerable pain.

It seems inconceivable that a production of "Hamlet" by his greatest living screen interpreter could have caused so little stir. That the public didn't get to see it widely is due to Columbia's decision to release it to art houses. (A preferable decision to the rumor that a two-and-a-half hour version was being prepared for mass release.) It's one thing for a Hollywood studio to be wary of a four-hour movie, but among my colleagues at the time there was something like indignation that they would be expected to sit through a four-hour "Hamlet." Nobody complains about movie lengths more than critics. (Given the stuff the job requires you to sit through, this is often with good reason.) But even before it was seen, a four-hour "Hamlet" seemed to afford some critics something like relief. At last, here was something they could point to justify their grumblings about what they saw as Branagh's egocentric ambition.

Branagh has been generating those grumbles since his "Henry V," in 1989. Only Welles and Olivier had ever before adapted, directed and starred in Shakespeare adaptations. And for an actor who was not yet widely known beyond England (unlike Olivier, who was a star in America when he made his "Henry V," a lush movie that was an enormous emotional boost for England in the midst of World War II) to undertake it as his first film was a real gamble.

It's worth remembering that Branagh set his first scene, Derek Jacobi delivering the prologue, on a movie set. It was of course, a nod to and variation on Olivier's "Henry V," which opened on stage at the Globe Playhouse. It was also Branagh's way of announcing that his ambition was not filmed theater but movies. In the Fred Astaire film "The Band Wagon," there's a pompous theater director, played by Jack Buchanan, who announces, "There is no difference between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare's immortal verse and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson's immortal feet." Maybe Branagh's detractors would have tolerated him more if he were that kind of obvious faker. But he works on a scale that makes him impossible for them to ignore, and shuttles from Shakespeare to various genres (with varying degrees of success -- from the delicious thriller "Dead Again" to a nearly unwatchable take on "Frankenstein" -- with consistent confidence.

Is that a mark of ego? Absolutely. How do you succeed in the movies without ego? Movies of any kind -- forget whether they're good or bad -- don't get made via modesty. And the more ambitious movies are, the more brashness is needed to see them through. There have been great filmmakers -- Jean Renoir, Vittorio de Sica, Satyajit Ray -- who so fully empathize with the characters they put on screen that their genius seems modest, self-effacing. But they are exceptions. Branagh is so far a filmmaker with greatness in him rather than a great filmmaker, but he has the hunger and willingness to try new things (in the case of "Love's Labour's Lost," crazy things) that distinguish the directors with the potential to be giants from those who, no matter how well, are just getting the job done.

It's easy to understand the hatred (which I don't think is too strong a word) British critics feel for Branagh. He hasn't just violated the cardinal British sin of becoming successful, he's had the nerve to become a success in America. (Cliché or not, there is a very real British mindset that dictates that if the Yanks fall for it, it can't be very good.) It was depressing to see Branagh kowtow to that notion, apologizing for his success in the (deservedly) little-seen "A Midwinter's Tale," the story of a British actor who turns his back on Hollywood success because of his dedication to British theater. But there's another reason for the hostility of British critics, and it's rooted in the way that for many years British movies were conventional, threadbare cousins compared to the imagination and vitality of their American and European contemporaries.

Most of the talented British filmmakers who emerged, like Hitchcock, left England for Hollywood. And when a British film did garner acclaim beyond the UK it almost always had a literary pedigree. That some of those pictures, like David Lean's Dickens adaptations, were among the best Britain had to offer reinforced the prejudice, rightly or wrongly, that British directors were only good when the movies they made were connected to Britain's literary heritage. To many contemporary British critics, Branagh's Shakespeare films must seem like a confirmation of that prejudice. And so they champion the thin socialist gruel of Ken Loach and fall over themselves when Mike Leigh makes a costume epic as static as "Topsy-Turvy."

But unlike those "well-made" British films of the '30s and '40s, Branagh's pictures display a most un-British willingness to say "Look at me!" He has an appetite for color and drama and spectacle, a palpable exhilaration at working in the medium. And in some ways, in America as well as Britain, that makes him a man out of time. In the midst of the genuinely exciting filmmaking being done by the likes of Almereyda, Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell, Branagh's ambition to bring intelligent and entertaining versions of classics to the screen can be dismissed as middlebrow. But in some ways, insisting that movies aimed at a mass audience can be engaging without dumbing themselves down, believing that audiences beyond the art-house crowd can be entertained by Shakespeare, is a daring move given the state of most mainstream movies.

"Love's Labour's Lost" is a failure, but the sort of failure that could only be made by someone with talent. Much of it doesn't work, but Branagh's ambition and showman's instincts are very much in evidence throughout.

In Shakespeare's play, the King of Navarre has just announced that he and three of his friends will withdraw from the world to better themselves through study. This studious hibernation, of course, means no women. But just then the Princess of France and three of her female attendants arrive on an official visit. Of course, the men quickly forget their vows (though they try to hide that from one another) and the play ends after several acts of complications with the comic secondary characters, with the four couples happily paired off.

Perhaps because "Love's Labour's Lost" is a slight Shakespeare, Branagh felt freer to fool around with it, reimagining it as a '30s musical comedy. Recapturing the carefree spirit of Depression-era comedies and musicals, which Pauline Kael once summed up as "that sustained feat of careless magic," is one of the most difficult tasks a filmmaker can attempt. The tone was very much tied to the American mood of the time, and though now we're often told the films captured the mood of a nation trying to forget the Depression, it would be more accurate to say that they expressed the mood of a nation defying the harshness of the times. The best '30s comedies are noticeably lacking in sentiment. The tone is cheerfully cynical and wisecracking. They offer the thrill and sweetness of romance without the gush. Maybe because those movies appear so effortless, filmmakers fool themselves into thinking that they can replicate their spirit. Prince captured something of the era's sass in his "Under the Cherry Moon." And Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild" and Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" brought the wised-up attitude of screwball to modern settings. In most instances, though, nostalgia creeps in, and nostalgia is almost always sentimental. So instead of freshness, modern attempts to make comedies set in the '30s feel studied and self-aware.

Branagh can't escape nostalgia because he's using the blithe perfection of '30s romantic comedy to stand in for the Europe that ended with World War II. Setting the play in 1939, a few months before the start of the war, gives the proceedings the melancholy of sadness held at bay. We are watching a vanished genre standing in for a vanished world. It's a terrific idea, and Branagh manages a happy-go-lucky tone without (for the most part) stumbling into coyness. The cast includes Alessandro Nivola as the King and Alicia Silverstone as the Princess; Branagh as Berowne, the most skeptical of the king's fellow scholars, and the lovely dark-eyed Natascha McElhone as Rosaline, the woman he falls for. Adrian Lester and Emily Mortimer, and Matthew Lillard and Carmen Ejogo are other sets of lovers. They do their own singing and dancing, but unlike Woody Allen in "Everyone Says I Love You," Branagh isn't trying to charm us with the fact that these aren't trained singers and dancers. The dancing is confined to modest twirls and kicks. The cinematographer, Alex Thomson, serves the actors, not just by allowing us a full view of their bodies during the dance scenes (a simple rule of dance sequences that a surprising number of filmmakers violate) but by gliding the camera in a way that fools us into thinking we're seeing more movement than we are. (He doesn't have to when the very winning Adrian Lester, who can really dance, is on screen.) The singing isn't memorable, but the great songs aren't massacred -- although Branagh has a light, pleasing voice and perhaps more skill as a singer than he lets on. ("Dead Again" opens with him singing Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," the most difficult standard of all.)

Branagh has taken remarkable pains to get the details of dress and deportment just right. Anna Buruma's costumes includes touches like the men wearing neckties as belts in one scene (something Astaire often did in real life) and elaborate beading on the women's dresses (often color-coordinated with the ties and pocket handkerchiefs of the man they are paired with). Tina Harvey strikes a delicate balance in her production design. The King's riverside enclave is a sumptuous retreat, but the autumn colors suggest the gathering storm. The actors carry themselves with an open cheerfulness that's well suited to the era, particularly Matthew Lillard, whose boyish face is right out of the '30s.

The supporting clowns are more distinct but, as often in Shakespeare, not as funny as they're meant to be. As Don Armado, Timothy Spall's physical work is fine, but he overdoes the comic simpering of his line readings. Nathan Lane gives Costard the look and spirit of a baggy pants vaudevillian. Best of all is Geraldine McEwan's schoolmaster Holofernia. Outfitted in mortar board, glasses that sit on her nose and a spinster's sensible tweed suit, McEwan turns her birdlike frame into a lovable caricature. (She looks like the drawing of the professor who used to adorn Yahtzee boxes.) Perhaps the movie's best moment is when, accompanied by Richard Briers, she sings "The Way You Look Tonight."

But as characters, none of them are particularly memorable, and that's something you couldn't say about even the bland actors (like Robert Sean Leonard and Kate Beckinsale) whom Branagh has cast before. You retain McElhone's eyes, Lillard's face, Carmen Ejogo's smile, Lester's dancing, but not much else. Alessandro Nivola's King is like one of the bland romantic leads who cluttered up the Marx Brothers' movies, and Silverstone, with her squeaky voice and baby cheeks, is simply out of place and out of her depth.

Part of the problem lies in Branagh's reduction of the play. He's cut it to resemble the frivolous plots of '30s musicals, plots that were nothing more than contrivances on which to hang song and dance numbers. (Quick! What's the plot of "Top Hat"?) The trouble is you can't do that with even a Shakespeare play as slight as this one. The movie seems to have no connective tissue, and we lose the delight of the verse. And Branagh is too anxious to recreate as much of '30s cinema as he can. So the movie strays from romantic comedy to ape Busby Berkeley. Then it strays from the decade, aping Esther Williams' musicals and even "Casablanca."

Branagh's performance, however, does work. He has mastered the trickiness of making Shakespeare's lines both comprehensible as speech and making them sing as verse. He is especially gifted delivering lines of love. Berowne's final scenes with McElhone (who responds to her co-star with some fine readings of her own) are the one place in the movie we can appreciate the verse. He has changed from the doughy likability he had in "Henry V" into a real romantic (and, in "Hamlet," heroic) presence.

Though you can see everything that's wrong with "Love's Labour's Lost," I think it would take a particularly mingy spirit to feel ill towards it. The love Branagh displays for the genre he's imitating is anything but paltry. The whole conception of the movie is a chance worth taking, even if it doesn't pay off. "Love's Labour's Lost" is perhaps best looked on as the latest chapter in a grand undertaking that I'm certain has many more glories ahead of it. (Branagh has announced he will next star in and adapt, but not direct, "Macbeth.") The thought of the Shakespeare plays he has not yet filmed, and what he might bring to "Twelfth Night" or "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or maybe eventually "King Lear," is one of the most exciting prospects contemporary movies have to offer. Branagh makes me feel lucky that I'm around to experience it.

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