Love's Labour's Lost
review by Elias Savada, 16 June 2000

For more than a decade Kenneth Branagh has hoisted Shakespeare on the film-going masses and shown that even an under-educated patron of the seventh art can enjoy the timeless verbal invention that the bard of Avon wrote 400 years ago. The director (Love’s Labour’s Lost is his eighth feature), is still best remembered for his debut film, Henry V (1989), which won widespread acclaim (with best director and actor nominations) for the fiery portrayal of the warrior-king. Now, following his popular Much Ado About Nothing (1993), the lukewarm yet diverting A Midwinter’s Tale (1995), and the unexpurgated Hamlet (1996), he returns to lighter fare and amusing and mostly satisfying stuff. Both a paean to lyric poetry and Hollywood’s fondly remembered theatrically-set musical burlesques, LLL is quite audacious for its bubbly lightheadedness, even if it compresses most of the original at the expense of too many reaction shots. But young love (even if thirty-nine-year-old Branagh pushes the envelope as a college student) and lust wait over the near horizon, hanging just above the dockside Japanese lanterns and nearly as high as the full (paper) moon.

As a public domain source, there’s always a handful of Shakespeare adaptations released every year including the recent Hamlet with Ethan Hawke and the forthcoming O featuring Mekhi Phifer as Othello. The summer release of this short and sweetly love-sick version of a lesser-known work, the first for the big screen, is subtitled “A Romantic Musical Comedy,” reflecting more on Branagh’s infatuation with the classic Hollywood musical than on being a straightforward rendering of the play. And yes, that is Stanley Donen, the man (often with Gene Kelly) behind On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, Royal Wedding, and a host of other memorable 1950s musicals, who is co-presenting (with Martin Scorsese) Branagh’s all-singing, all-dancing (well a good part at least) escape to Technicolor dreams and bygone days before Fred Astaire was dead and dancing with a vacuum cleaner.

Running a brisk ninety-three minutes, much of the verbiage of Shakespeare’s original is tossed away out of necessity and scenes are re-arranged (some authorities will scream mutilation; I won’t); the missing elements are replaced with ten consummate songs (think glorious Gershwin, popular Porter, brilliant Berlin, etc.), all sung by the cast (for better or not so better). Everyone sings at least adequately and always enthusiastically, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. The dance numbers should make anyone who doesn’t remember Busby Berkeley head to their favorite search engine then rent some of the legendary choreographer-director’s better contributions to medium (42nd Street and Footlight Parade are but two of a dozen standouts). At least they didn’t shamelessly re-title it The Bard in Sixty Seconds. Jerry Bruckheimer is nowhere in sight. The Shakespearian sophistication remains (it’s hard to mess that up) and the slapstick elements highlighted (many characters are overplayed to buffoonish glee). Kudos to Branagh’s veteran creative staff (Designer Tim Harvey, Director of Photography Alex Thomson, and Choreographer Stuart Hopps) for an amazing triumph of blocking the cast without having them trip over each other. Shot almost entirely on British sound stages, the confined quarters don’t hamper the fun (it didn’t with Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors), and Costume Designer Anna Buruma dresses the stars to shine brightly (blue, green, orange, and red for the four sets of lovers) against the sets’ muted autumn colors.

The action is updated to 1939, just prior to World War II, and the introduction of the cast is intelligently relayed to the audience in that forgotten film journal of current events, the newsreel. Complete with black-and-white grain, dust speckles, and jerky action, Branagh makes extravagant use of the technique to relate his story—of the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his three best friends, Berowne (Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard), and Dumaine (Adrian Lester) as they enroll in the higher study of philosophy. They publicly declare women non gratis so as not to influence their thought-filled intentions, but the fog-enshrouded arrival of the beautiful Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her three stunning maids in waiting: Rosaline (Natascha McElhone), Maria (Carmen Ejogo), and Katherine (Emily Mortimer) thwart the men’s best laid emotional plans. As expected, the innocently-dictated strategy often goes awry as the ladies and gents develop attractions for each other.

While Europe mobilizes for the impending war, subplots erupt in town. Don Armado, an oafish, mustachioed Spanish nobleman (Timothy Spall) frets over Jaquenetta (Stefania Rocca), a hot-blooded, red-headed wench, starting off the “I Get a Kick Out of You” production number that incorporates synchronized swimming a la Esther Williams. The dimwitted vaudeville clown Costard (Nathan Lane), evoking the memory of the great Señor Wences, a regular of the old Ed Sullivan Show, misdelivers some love letters, a male miscarriage unraveled by the king’s elderly tutors at the Royal College of Philosophy, Holofernia (Geraldine McEwan) and Nathaniel (Richard Briers). Wires get crossed but the actors’ feet don’t. Global combat begins and ends in the blink of a newsreel frame; the men return heroes and, of course, all’s well that ends well. You’ll find yourself humming any of the soundtrack standards long after you’ve left the theater.

Adapted for the
Screen and 
Directed by:

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh
Alicia Silverstone
Nathan Lane
Adrian Lester
Matthew Lillard, 
Natascha McElhone
Alessandro Nivola
Emily Mortimer
Carmen Ejogo
Timothy Spall

Based on the 
Play by:

William Shakespeare




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