One of the joys of seeing Shakespeare on stage, even after 400 years' worth of productions, is the range of experimentation that is still possible with the material, even if the risks don't always pay off. On film, however, the risks have traditionally been kept to a minimum, with most productions being set either in a generic 19th century European countryside, or in Elizabethan dress.
So, on that level, it's a breath of fresh air to watch Kenneth Branagh's take on "Love's Labour's Lost," which he stages as a 1930s movie musical. For all of Branagh's Shakespearean bonafides, it's a bold move to have the Bard's words broken up by musical numbers set to the songs of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and others. However, this is one experiment that falls flat.
But first, for the uninitiated, here's the story in a nutshell. The King of Naverre (Alessandro Nivola) and his three buddies (Matthew Lillard, Adrian Lester and Branagh) agree to give up the company of women for three years to devote themselves to their studies. However, the French princess (Alicia Silverstone) shows up on a diplomatic mission with her attendants (Natasha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo and Emily Mortimer). As you might guess, various wackiness ensues before a bittersweet ending. The play is one of Shakespeare's early comedies that doesn't carry the weight or beauty of his later, more famous work.
The biggest problem with the film is that Branagh's concept requires such wildly different skill sets from his cast that none of them can do it all. So, despite the presence of a talented ensemble, nothing quite hangs together. The actors are either good at the poetry (Branagh, McElhone and the wonderful old pro Richard Briers) or the song and dance (Lester and Nathan Lane, who seems to be channeling all four Marx Brothers). And then there are the unfortunate few (namely, Silverstone and Lillard) who can handle neither. As a result, every scene seems strained as everyone on screen is trying too hard to reach out of their comfort zone to deliver something they may not have training in. And then there's the performance of Timothy Spall as Don Armado, who chews the scenery into tiny pieces.
But for all of that, it is still a lovely film to look at, thanks to the art direction of Mark Raggett, the costumes by Anna Buruma and Alex Thomson's excellent cinematography. There are even a few good directorial touches from Branagh. It's not quite enough to offset the problems with the acting, but it's still good to see a play from outside the usual cinematic Shakespearean canon on the big screen, even if most of the text has been cut.
The best Shakespearean bit is Branagh's dynamite delivery of the "From women's eyes" soliloquy. The best musical bit is the Gene Kelly-ish sensuality and bravado of the "Let's Face the Music and Dance" number.
Shakespeare's ending to "Love's Labour's Lost" is notoriously inconclusive, which is something Branagh addresses with a montage showing what happened to the characters after the end of the story. However, many scholars now believe that this play is just the first part of the story, which was finished by Shakespeare in a play called "Love's Labour's Won" that is now lost to history.
"Pennies From Heaven" (1981) and "Everybody Says I Love You" (1996).
The complete play.
Take a Look:
"I Won't Dance":
Branagh doing what he does best (by which I mean the soliloquizing, not the tap dancing):
Nathan Lane doing what he does best (by which I mean the Broadway-zing, not the soliloquizing):
"Let's Face the Music and Dance" (complete with Spanish subtitles):
Behind the scenes featurette: