Love Light

Now (Toronto), 15-21 June 2000
By Kim Linekin


With this trifle about a king and his lords being tempted from their studies by four Avon ladies, Branagh brings us Shakespeare Lite. Thirties-style song-and- dance numbers replace the original's wordplay, and although the switch from Elizabethan to everyday language is jarring, the musical treatment has a certain charm. Branagh and gang look like they're having a gas in their technicolour costumes and sets. Too bad the couples have no chemistry and the supporting players keep showing up the leads with their actual singing and dancing talent.

Kenneth Branagh is in the midst of a most genteel mid-life crisis. He just doesn't like to admit it. I meet him at the Four Seasons Hotel one sunny May afternoon, prepared to be dazzled by his celebrated wit and charm. Though he'll be 40 this December, he still has the look of a scruffy schoolboy, something even a close shave and pressed clothes can't erase.

But he seems tired, and takes my questions far too seriously. His sober demeanour is striking when you consider that the film he's promoting, Love's Labour's Lost, is an old-style musical based on one of Shakespeare's most light- hearted comedies.

Definite ideas
Branagh not only adapted and directed this confection, but he also sings and dances in it. I ask what drove him to do something so frothy at this point in his life. "Deep resistance to the cynicism of the age," he replies thoughtfully, "and I don't exclude myself from that either. I wanted to do something that was silly and life-affirming and that was not worried about what people were going to think."

Yet Branagh has definite ideas about how he wants audiences to respond. "I hope it puts a smile on their faces -- it was as simple as that on some level," he says. "When I was first in this play, I found it joyful. When I first started watching musicals, I found them joyful. I think this joy is a missing ingredient in many movies that purport to be so."

He also set out to prove that he and Shakespeare are funny guys. "I wanted to make a film where you could have a stuffed sheep fall over and not really explain it."

But beyond bringing joy to the masses, Branagh grudgingly admits that he needed to lighten up after his last project.

"I always deny the idea that working on something like Hamlet for 18 months really gets to you. But in fact it does. I notice because eventually friends say to me, 'Thank fuck you're not doing that play anymore."'

Of course, the turmoil in his personal life could also have sparked his escape into musical reverie. Questions about his breakup with actor Helena Bonham Carter last fall are off limits. Instead, I try to find out whether he connected with the plot of Love's Labour's Lost, which shows how easily men can be distracted from their labours by women.

"I think most heterosexual men probably find that to be the case." An artful dodge. "What is it they say? Men are supposed to think about sex once every four seconds? I think it's true."

Branagh believes this obsession knows no age limits. He deliberately cast 20- somethings alongside mature actors, lumping himself in with the former lot, to show them all reacting to love with the same "youthful silliness."

"This is one of the great things about being seized by the effects of that across-a-crowded-room, lightning-bolt moment -- we're all suddenly 15 again," he exclaims.

But doth he protest too much? For all Branagh's serious dedication to the silliness of love, he has the same doubts as everyone else over 30 about whether that kind of love can last.

These doubts slip out during the photo shoot after our interview. He tells me he changed the ambiguous ending of Shakespeare's play to one better suited to musical comedy, but confesses he felt "guilt-ridden" during post-production about what he'd done.

Question marks
Branagh feels that Shakespeare "always leaves question marks in the relationships in his plays. Ian McKellen once said that there isn't a successful relationship in Shakespeare. Not a single one." We debate various characters for a moment. Then he returns to his quandary.

"But when you think of the couples in this play, will that kind of honeymoon love last? Or Claudio and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing -- do we feel that that's got the seeds of success sewn into it?"

To his credit, Branagh is making films to explore these doubts instead of buying sports cars and dating supermodels.

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