Kenneth Branagh's First Love
British Director Gets a Kick out of Turning Shakespeare's "Loves Labour's Lost" into a Musical

By Betsy Sherman, Boston Sunday Globe, 18 June 2000
* Thanks to Paula Brait

Neither Kenneth Branagh nor William Shakespeare gets the name-above-the-title honors for the new film "Love's Labour's Lost". The movie's poster proclaims "Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese present 'Love's Labour's Lost'."

Why is the endorsement of Donen, director of such classic musicals as "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Bandwagon," pertinent to the latest of Branagh's Shakespeare adaptations? Because Branagh upped the challenge to himself this time around by turning the Bard's comedy into an homage to the Hollywood musical. He's thrilled at having received Donen's blessing, as well as Scorsese's advice.

But considering today's marketplace, it isn't enough for Branagh to have done a song and dance in front of the camera. A musical -- especially one that wears its nostalgia on its sleeve -- needs a marketing song and dance as well. So Branagh came to Boston to talk up the romantic roundelay that opened Friday, co-starring Alicia Silverstone, Nathan Lane, Natascha McElhone, Timothy Spall ("Secrets and Lies"), Matthew Lillard ("Scream"), Adrian Lester ("Primary Colors"), and Alessandro Nivola ("Mansfield Park").

It's hard to believe that the onetime wunderkind of British theater, who audaciously brought his "Henry V" before the cameras in 1989 as his debut film as director, will turn 40 this year. It's been five years since his split from his wife, actress Emma Thompson. (And Branagh's relationship with actress Helena Bonham Carter ended last year.) Professionally, Branagh's career as a filmmaker reached a plateau recently when he was honored by a retrospective of his seven films at London's National Film Theatre.

"I was deeply, deeply chuffed," he says. Er, translation? "Pleased. Proud."

Branagh's body of work is admirably varied. He has explored genres such as the thriller ("Dead Again"), the small-scale comedy ("Peter's Friends"), and the big-scale horror picture ("Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"), as well as his trademark Shakespeares. Branagh's approach to the Bard is the same as it was when he formed Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987, after his stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company: Make it accessible and thereby lower the intimidation factor. The cast of "Love's Labour's Lost" was assembled with that goal in mind: "The primary thing was to get the actors who I thought would do the Shakespeare with naturalism, intelligence and clarity."

The play concerns the King of Navarre's scheme to immerse himself and three of his friends in a life of study for three years, during which time the men will have no contact with women. The plan falls apart as soon as the princess of France arrives on a diplomatic visit, along with her three handmaidens. Romance fills the air, which, in Branagh's film, means that the characters burst into songs by Cole Porter ("I Get a Kick Out of You"), Irving Berlin ("Cheek to Cheek"), George and Ira Gershwin ("I've Got a Crush on You") and other Tin Pan Alley masters. While much of Shakespeare's banter remains, a good deal was cut to make room for song and dance.

Branagh set the film in 1939, not only to capitalize on the Fred-and-Ginger flair of the period, but to juxtapose the mirth with the impending shadow of World War II. "That period between the wars seems terrifically poignant to me," he says. "I often hear this kind of thing among my friends, 'I'm taking a year off and read 'War and Peace,' I'm going to learn the piano, I'm going to go vegan, I've got to do something important with my life.' In 1939, time was so precious that anything that you wanted to do, you'd be very keen to do right away, because the world might turn upside down in a minute."

Early on, Branagh consulted Scorsese, who not only made the musical "New York, New York," but also is an expert on old Hollywood. He peppered Scorsese with questions. "How do you schedule dance numbers? What about fatigue and injury? How many rehearsals are necessary? What are the risks and benefits of shooting dancers in full-body shots, rather than in shots of isolated body parts?"

It was at a screening during the film's post-production phase that Scorsese brought Donen along. Branagh and his producers wanted feedback about the newly added newsreel pastiches that frame the story ("It was not something I had in the original screenplay, but it felt like we needed something to let the audience know how to enjoy the movie"). Donen and Scorsese gave their comments and eventually formally endorsed the film.

Branagh and his team crafted the costumes, sets, score and cinematography to tap into the modern audience's "dim cultural memory of how music can work in a film. Everything's a little larger than life, so you can accept all sorts of silliness, like people levitating."

When it came to photographing the cast members, "we were after '40's glamorous close-ups. I said to everybody, 'This is a vanity inclusion zone. PLEASE tell me what you think is your good side and your bad side.' The close-ups in the scene where the boys meet the girls -- eight tiny shots -- took a whole day to shoot. I wanted everybody to look fantastic, because that's part of the vocabulary of that kind of picture."

Singing, dancing and Shakespeare coaches helped the eclectic group of actors hone the areas with which they had the least experience. Branagh is self-deprecating about his efforts in the first two categories. By casting Lester, an ace dancer, Branagh was able to fulfill a fantasy by proxy. During his childhood in Belfast, Branagh would join his mum in watching the Saturday musical double feature on BBC2. "I was 9 when I saw Fred Astaire in 'Shall We Dance' jump on chairs and glide down off them. So I said to Adrian, 'Please show off. Do the chair thing. Because I'd like to know how it's done.'"

"Love's Labour's Lost" is the first part of a three-picture deal for Shakespeare films that Branagh will produce. The next will be "Macbeth," which he'll adapt and star in, but not direct. The third will be "As You Like It".

Branagh is excited about some other films in which he has acted recently. "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog" is one. "It's a black comedy about an English playwright in Los Angeles who's going through a mid-life crisis, creative and personal. His wife wants to have kids and he doesn't. A family moves in next door with kids and a barking dog. It's very funny, and quite touching. The character is terrifyingly like me."

"Alien Love Triangle" is more surreal stuff. Branagh's character finds out that his wife, played by Courteney Cox, is really a male alien. Cox's alien wife (Heather Graham) shows up and "a love triangle ensues. It was a hoot." The half-hour film was directed by Danny Boyle.

So Branagh has lightened up -- at least until he burrows into "The Scottish Play".

"About time, isn't it?" he beams. "People who have worked with me regularly and seen me do all this angst-y stuff, say, 'Why don't you do a comedy? You're funny.' When I left drama school, I had the fear that I would be typecast in comedy. I think I consciously avoided it, wherever I could."

Branagh lost a friend and colleague last month, when John Gielgud died at age 96. As he reminisces, Branagh imitates the legendary Shakespearean actor's syrupy voice. In 1992, Branagh directed Gielgud in the short film "Swan Song", taken from a Chekhov story about an actor's farewell to the stage. "He said to me, 'They'll play this when I die.' And they did.

"I'll miss him. He was so curious and alive and vital and interested in things. My image of him is in the doorway of the Criterion Theatre, at the end of the third day of shooting 'Swan Song'. He had a tweed jacket on, he had a flat cap at a racy angle, he had a Turkish cigarette dangling out of one corner of his mouth, he had a copy of The Times crossword - completed - under his arm. He asked me, 'Was that any good today, dear boy?' And I said, 'It was very good, sir.' He said, 'All right, toodle-oo.' He had a smile on his face of such happiness. A man who was so clearly in love with what he did."

"Every time we worked together, he said 'You must call me John.' But it just seemed impossible. With him, you sensed a walking legend. You sensed an age that would soon pass. There was just a symbolic something or other that made you respectful. And full of 'sirs', quite frankly."

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