Love's Labour's Lost a Labour of Love for Star

Ottawa Citizen, March 13 1999
by Jamie Portman

'I really thought he'd lost his mind when he hired me.'' That was Alicia Silverstone's reaction to Kenneth Branagh's decision to cast her as his leading lady in his new film version of Shakespeare's comedy, Love's Labour's Lost.

''But now it's just super, super wonderful and I'm so excited to be doing it and I'm working really hard on it,'' she says happily.

As for Branagh, he promises that when it comes to putting Shakespeare on the screen, this film will be unique -- ''sexy, entertaining and accessible. '' He has moved it from its late Elizabethan setting to Europe in the 1930s.

He is also turning the play into a musical, with a bouquet of familiar songs by such 20th-century greats as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern.

''These particular 20th-century geniuses can stand next to Shakespeare if you give the story a '30s setting,'' Branagh says. ''It's amazing to take Shakespeare's text and the words of these songs and put them together and see how well they work.''

Branagh cites one example. When his character, a young aristocrat named Berowne, comments that ''the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony,'' these Shakespearean words become a cue-in for the ''heaven, I'm in heaven'' lyrics in Irving Berlin's classic song, Cheek To Cheek.

The last Shakespeare film Branagh directed was Hamlet. There he insisted on using the full text of the play and the result was a four-hour running time. But with Love's Labour's Lost -- which deals with a group of young students who find it impossible to keep their pledge to keep women out of their lives and study for three years - - he administered some ruthless cuts.

''I'd say maybe one-third of the text will survive,'' Branagh says.

''I haven't actually counted the lines because I feared I would actually hear the sound of Shakespeare turning in his grave. But I would say we have retained the most accessible part of Love's Labour's Lost, which is an enormously ornate text with many contemporary allusions and other words we simply no longer know the meaning of.''

As for Silverstone, she had earlier been approached to do Romeo and Juliet opposite Leonardo Di Caprio, but turned it down because she didn't like the type of contemporary treatment envisaged. But after seeing Branagh's screen version of Henry V -- ''The battle scene was so amazing!'' -- she felt she would be comfortable working with him.

Now, all she has to do is learn to sing. ''It's scary and wonderful because I've never sung before,'' says the star of the current Blast From The Past.

''So now I'm learning how to sing. It's a very neat thing, kind of what I imagine painting would be like. I know it sounds weird, but I always wanted to paint. Yet every time I think of it, I say I can't do it. That's what I thought about singing: I can't sing, so I'd better shut up ... I don't even sing in the shower because I'm so scared. But now I'm doing it ... and having fun.''

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