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Love's labored

Branagh gives Shakespeare musical treatment

What are we to do with the genres of yesteryear? Time takes a toll on entertainment styles as much as anything else, subjecting them to changing tastes and trends. Shakespearean comedy, like the classic movie musical, doesn't always connect with modern artists and audiences, especially on the big screens. New generations lose interest, crucial disciplines go neglected and the rules of artifice ring false when improperly replicated. With his adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost, Kenneth Branagh has the ingenious notion of bringing two aging genres together and letting their artifices embrace. He takes one of Shakespeare's least-produced comedies and presents it in a slavish imitation of an MGM musical style (with Singin' in the Rain's Stanley Donen one of the film's producers). If Branagh's execution lived up to his idea, Love's Labour's Lost would be an instant classic, but too often it proves to have two left feet.
After the old-fashioned, letter-perfect opening credits, a black-and-white newsreel brings us to the country of Navarre, where a breathless (and pointedly not Shakespearean) narrator sets up the story, set before World War II. A high-minded king (Alessandro Nivola) and three courtiers (Branagh, Adrian Lester and Scream's Matthew Lillard) vow to spend three years in cloistered study, shunning the temptations of the outside world, especially the company of women.
Branagh's commonsensical Berowne argues that their plan is doomed to failure, and in the middle of his explanation he bursts into "I'd Rather Charleston," and his three fellows dance and sing along. They all end up signing the intellectual vow, but scarcely is the ink dry when they have to greet the party of a French Princess (Alicia Silverstone). Upon seeing her and the three ladies-in-waiting (including Natascha McElhone), all four scholars would rather be suitors.
Love's Labour's Lost is not an obvious choice for cinematic treatment. It's a play whose poetry far exceeds its plot, and the musical conceit forces Branagh to excise much of the play's best verse and snappiest scenes. It also has two of the Bard's least funny clowns, although Branagh casts two veteran funnymen in their roles. Timothy Spall convulses as the lisping, over-the-top Don Armado, while Nathan Lane strenuously plays the jester Costard, as if he's trying to imitate the three major Marx Brothers simultaneously.
Classic comedians like the Marxes and song-and-dance teams like Astaire and Rogers became famous for ability, so tested as to seem effortless. Branagh and his cast have a bit more polish than Woody Allen's purposefully amateurish Everyone Says I Love You, but Adrian Lester proves the only one with genuine grace. Watching the not-unpleasant dance routines of the four couples in tandem, you mostly wish that better dancers had the floor.
Branagh works to give Love's Labour's Lost the soundstage sheen of a period musical, making efforts to disguise the phony sets. Each of the four couples are matched with Technicolor hues in the costumes, like the blue that links Branagh to McElhone. But in employing the musical numbers, Branagh has more rhyme than reason. The Princess and her ladies' "Fancy Free" gives way to an incongruous water ballet, while the quirky rustics (lead by charming, elderly Geraldine McEwan) break into a pixilated "The Way You Look Tonight."
Occasionally the film finds the right combination of Shakespeare and pop standard, as when Branagh delivers a gorgeous monologue about love, and then softly sings "Heaven, I'm in heaven ... " from "Cheek to Cheek." But too often he strains for musical magic, as in the "Cheek to Cheek" number, when the lovestruck men float to the ceiling on wires.
As a thespian, Branagh can still do with blank verse what Gene Kelly did with tap shoes, but in adapting Love's Labour's Lost he steps on Shakespeare's toes. For instance, in the play the women scheme to dupe the four swains into wooing the wrong lovers. The film shows the trick's set-up and aftermath, but substitutes the screwball courtship with a steamy, Fosse-esque version of "Let's Face the Music and Dance," inappropriately bursting with heaving bosoms. Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing succeeded better in large part because Branagh kept the play's heart intact.
Branagh has restrained his habit of celebrity stunt casting — remember Michael Keaton in Much Ado?. But Silverstone forever seems out of place in grown-up roles, and is clearly in over her head as the Princess. (Plus, when she speaks, she moves her mouth in odd directions, almost like a stroke victim.) McElhone proves a much more confident and bright-eyed romantic lead, although her lines are few.
Part of the reason why Love's Labour's Lost is not oft-produced is its melancholy resolution, which the film amusingly sets at an airfield a la Casablanca. A climactic WWII montage set to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" ends the film on a perplexing note, as if trying to force the play to dance when it would rather sigh wistfully. Lost's well-intentioned musical concept ultimately proves too labored for its own good.u