A Real 'Labour' of Love
Bergen Record, June 10 2000
by Jim Beckerman
Let purists complain about the
transformation of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost"
into a Thirties-style song-and-dance movie.
Personally, Kenneth Branagh doesn't
give a hey nonny nonny or a hi de ho.
"One of my absolute tenets
is my resistance to those who are proprietorial about Shakespeare,"
says the director-star, dressed in stylish black, a la Hamlet,
for a recent interview in Manhattan.
"I continue, and it is not
false modesty, to view myself not as an expert at this, but simply
an enthusiast, an interpreter of Shakespeare -- who is for everybody,"
Well, maybe Branagh is being
a little modest at that.
The foremost movie interpreter
of Shakespeare since Laurence Olivier has approached the Bard
from many angles -- from his revisionist warts-and-all portrayal
of an English hero in his highly praised debut film "Henry
V" (1988) to his lively take on "Much Ado About Nothing"
(1993) to his epic "Hamlet" (1996), which broke all
the rules simply by its awesome fidelity to Shakespeare's text,
all 242 minutes of it.
In "Love's Labour's Lost,"
which opened Friday, he's gone to the opposite extreme.
Only about a third of Shakespeare's
original play remains in this 1930s-dress version that clocks
in at barely more than 90 minutes. Nor is that the most radical
departure from Shakespeare's 1598 comedy -- the first work to
be published under the Shakespeare byline.
The high points of the film are
when Branagh, Alicia Silverstone, Nathan Lane, Adrian Lester,
and the lords and ladies of the court of Navarre break out of
their iambic pentameter to croon and tap their way through such
classic songs as Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like
Show Business," Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight,"
and George and Ira Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away
No, it's not just a stunt, Branagh
There is actually the ghost of
a Thirties movie musical hidden in this early Shakespeare comedy
about four noblemen (Branagh, Lester, Matthew Lillard, and Alessandro
Nivola) who vow to give up love for three years, and four noble
ladies (Silverstone, Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejogo, adn Natascha
McElhone) who help them change their minds.
Branagh knows, because in addition
to being a Shakespeare enthusiast, he's also a musical comedy
buff. "They were always on television," says the 40-year-old
Irish-born, British-trained actor. "Back in pre-cable days,
they were the staple Saturday-Sunday afternoon product of BBC
2. I saw endless musicals."
He also cut his song-and-dance
teeth at the age of 19 in a drama school production of "Lady
Be Good," from which he salvaged the little-known Gershwin
gem "I'd Rather Charleston," the opening number of
"Love's Labour's Lost."
There are striking similarities,
he says, between the romantic comedies of the Globe Theatre era
and the 1930s Astaire-Rogers musical comedies that played Radio
City Music Hall. Both take place against a background of upper-class
luxury. Both feature romantic mix-ups, suave heroes and heroines,
"It's boy meets girl, boy
loses girl, boy finds girl," he says. "You willingly
embrace the corniness of it, the predictability of it. With a
plot like this, when the king and others start saying they're
gonna give it up for three years, you know, you just know what's
gonna happen. A 7-year-old could figure it out."
And the similarities don't end
In this film, Lane's character,
Costard, is patterned after the wise-guy sidekicks played in
1930s movies by Victor Moore and other vaudevillians. Holofernia
(Geraldine McEwan) is the sort of lively middle-aged lady played
in the Astaire films by Helen Broderick. One comic staple of
the Astaire films, the pompous foreigner, has his counterpart
in the Spaniard Don Armado (Timothy Spall), with his ridiculous
Salvador Dali moustache.
"Our ultimate aim, in the
spirit of the films we were inspired by, was to make it seem
effortless," Branagh says. "To make it seem that we
just rolled up and did it."
No easy trick, that. Because
in addition to having such great talents as Astaire and Rogers
on tap, the 1930s Hollywood studio factories were geared to the
mass-production of musicals, with the best directors, choreographers,
and music arrangers under contract.
Since the decline of movie musicals
in the early 1970s, the occasional attempts to revive them ("At
Long Last Love," "Evita," "Everyone Says
I Love You") have mostly been exercises in reinventing the
wheel. So it was for "Love's Labour's Lost,'" where
everything had to be done from scratch.
"This, for me, was a much
greater challenge than doing 'Hamlet,'" Branagh says.
To prepare for this $16 million
film, Branagh created a three-week "boot camp" where
actors unfamiliar with musical comedy could be taught to sing
and dance, and singers unfamiliar with Shakespeare could be taught
"Eight o'clock in the morning
we got the company together for two hours of singing and dancing,"
Branagh says. "Then each was carrying their individual rehearsal
schedules to go from singing and dancing to Shakespeare, depending
on the individual."
With so difficult a project,
Branagh was grateful to get the endorsement of one man who really
mattered: Stanley Donen, the director of such legendary MGM musicals
as "On the Town" and "Singin' in the Rain."
The credits for "Love's Labour's Lost" list Donen (along
with Martin Scorsese) for "presenting" the film --
an honorary title more than anything else, Branagh says. "It
was particularly thrilling to get Donen's thumbs up," Branagh
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