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February 22, 2000 2:00 AM
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BERLIN 2000 REVIEW: Branagh Back with The Bard

Berlin 2000 Review: Branagh Back with The Bard


by G. Allen Johnson




(indieWIRE/2.22.2000) -- Geez, it's been a dozen years already since Kenneth Branagh burst onto
the scene with his stunning adaptation of "Henry V." Since then, his
mission has been to make William Shakespeare's plays accessible to
modern movie audiences, and that will be his legacy. Forget "Dead
Again
," "Peter's Friends" and "Theory of Flight"; Branagh, like Laurence
Olivier and Orson Welles, will forever be identified with the Bard on
the silver screen.

"Love's Labour's Lost," shown out of competition here, is soft and
fuzzy, and out of left field. But it continues Branagh's tradition of
pushing the envelope when it comes to Shakespeare. Now we have the first
attempt to meld Shakespeare with old-style Hollywood musicals. "Love's
Labour's Lost" is lesser Shakespeare, a rare romantic comedy and
Branagh's adaptation isn't a masterpiece either, but the writer-director
has come up with a sumptuous, happy piece of fluff.

It's 1939 and the kingdom of Navarre, situated between France and
Spain, is isolationist. While tension is building in pre-World War II
Europe (there are several newsreel sequences in this film), the King of
Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) has publicly announced his intention of
devoting three years exclusively to study. He'll swear off women, fast
once a week and sleep only three hours a night. The king gets three of
his most trusted nobleman to take this vow with him. They are Berowne
(Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard) and Dumaine (Adrian Lester).
Only Berowne initially has resistance -- "The mind shall banquet, while
the body pine," he says.

Or try this line at a party sometime: "Abstinence engenders maladies."

One last task awaits the king and his court -- a diplomatic visit from
the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her court -- Katherine
(Emily Mortimer), Maria (Carmen Ejogo) and Rosaline (Natascha McElhone).
Love is in the air already, thanks to the arrival of Spanish nobleman
Don Armado (Timothy Spall), who chases the local girl Jacquanetta
(Stefania Rocca). Costard (Nathan Lane), a vaudeville clown, is around
for entertainment value.

The king and his court face a dilemma: Because of their vow, they must
keep silent about their feelings of love. So silent, no one will be the
first to admit what they are all thinking, and that is the vow should be
deep-sixed. During this pining, there are secret meetings, love letters,
and yes, musical numbers. Standards, like "The Way You Look Tonight," "I
Get a Kick Out of You" and "There's No Business Like Show Business,"
dressed up with dancing, tuxedos and brightly lit set design and
cinematography (by Alex Thomson).

Like most of Branagh's Shakespeare productions, "Love's Labour's Lost"
has an eclectic cast. Most aren't classically trained dancers, so when
Lester -- the only member of the cast who is ? has a dance number, the
difference is quite noticeable. Same with the singing -- Silverstone
isn't going to belt them out like Lane, for example. For that matter,
Branagh's line reading is much superior to Lillard, who clearly isn't
used to the special rhythm of Shakespearean dialogue.

But that really seems to be part of Branagh's master plan of
popularizing the Bard. He feels the need to connect with his audience,
and my theory is he's willing to sacrifice a "unified" feel to his
productions, and perhaps a little quality, for an inclusive
accessibility. In this Utopian kingdom, he has cast marvelously talented
black actors Lester and Ejogo, and refreshingly he has them attracted to
others, not to each other. Race is never mentioned.

The accessibility issue also is a reason Branagh, who could surely get
financing for his Shakespearean films without name actors, casts movie
stars not usually associated with the classics. Branagh is an actor's
filmmaker, as opposed to a filmmaker's filmmaker. By casting
Silverstone, for instance, he hopes to draw younger audiences to
Shakespeare (and musicals, in this case) ? and as a bonus, give an
otherwise typecast actress some dimension.

All that strategy aside, is "Love's Labour's Lost" any good? Yes, but
there are problems. We know from the first 10 minutes that these mates
will trash their oath and perfectly match up with the four French women,
so there's no dramatic tension. The musical numbers are inconsistent ?
sometimes winning and inventive (like an Esther Williams-like number in
the pool with the ladies), other times rather weak. The biggest fault
is, in an eagerness for nostalgia, the 1930s-like slapstick comedy,
which doesn't mesh well with either Shakespearean dialogue or today's
movie audiences.

But there's something very infectious about this movie. It's cheery
countenance is impossible to ignore. Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost"
isn't, in the end, high-minded culture or a film that will bring back
the musical. Instead, it achieves its own ethereal brand of colorful
escapism.

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