June 9 2000
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
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,"
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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