by James Berardinelli
June 9, 2000
It would be neither an exaggeration nor a falsehood to state that Kenneth Branagh owes a lion's share of his reputation to a man who lived half-a-millennium ago. While the actor/filmmaker has crafted several motion pictures that have nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare (the taut and brilliant Hitchcock homage, Dead Again, leaps to mind), Branagh will always be best known for his adaptations of the Bard's plays. To date, they number four: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and his latest, Love's Labour's Lost (he also appeared in, but did not direct, a version of Othello).
Branagh's love affair with Shakespeare stretches back to his years on the stage, where his roots as both an actor and a director lie. In fact, in the pre-production process, he approaches his Shakespeare projects more like plays than motion pictures. During rehearsals, he has the cast perform the play live for the crew, going through every line and scene exactly as they would in a stage production. Although Branagh isn't interested in presenting anything as straightforward or mundane as a filmed play - his ambitions reach much higher - he believes that doing this once helps the actors become more comfortable with their characters.
In bringing any Shakespeare play to the screen, regardless of whether it's the tragic Hamlet or the lighter Love's Labour's Lost, Branagh employs a similar approach. He believes that it is his job as a screenwriter and a director to interpret the text, and that, in doing so, he must have "objectives...that are specific and meaningful to the audience." The play is a launching platform, not a means of constraint. His intention is to bring to viewers an experience that they will find relevant and meaningful in today's world. (Branagh is not the first director to make that statement - everyone from Franco Zeffirelli to Michael Almereyda has said something similar.) Shakespeare's plays have a universal quality that can be damaged by being "distractingly too specific." Slavish adherence to the text is not always the best approach, and, for the result to be effective, the filmmaker may find it necessary to edit passages or to stray from the traditional means of adapting Shakespeare.
These are the precepts Branagh brought to his version of Love's Labour's Lost, an often-forgotten entry into the Bard's canon. In answer to my question about why he chose this play over all others for his fourth cinematic Shakespeare venture, Branagh made two confessions. He admitted to preferring the comedies to the tragedies, stating that he likes the way Shakespeare addresses dark topics in a deceptively lighthearted manner. Secondly, he claimed a "lingering affection" for Love's Labour's Lost, recalling the time he had been involved in a British stage production of the play. He believes that audiences "enjoyed the unfamiliarity" of the text, especially the way it shifts tone from farce to tragedy towards the end.
Branagh's decision to present Love's Labour's Lost as an old-style Hollywood musical set in the '30s is a quality that has drawn fire from some critics who dislike Branagh's decision to replace Shakespeare's lyrics with popular standards. Branagh is unapologetic, saying that from the beginning he believed that Love's Labour's Lost should be performed with the "flourish and abandonment of a musical" and the songs were chosen not so much because of their popularity but because they fit the intent of the play, sometimes even to the point where words in the songs echoed lines on the written page.
Branagh clearly has a higher opinion of Love's Labour's Lost than most Shakespeare aficionados and he relishes the challenge of bringing it to a wider audience. His purpose here was to craft a movie that people could enjoy for the music, the comedy, and the beauty of Shakespeare's language. He wasn't interested in presenting a stuffed-shirt version; instead, he wanted the performances to take on an "improvisational quality", as if the actors were being manipulated by the characters, not the other way around.
To bring his vision of Love's Labour's Lost to life, Branagh elected to shift the time period to the 1930s. The era seemed appropriate because, according to him, "the time between the wars...was when people were trying to do some great thing." That mentality could be applied to King Ferdinand's noble-but-flawed determination to devote himself entirely to study. Although naively conceived, it is a grand gesture. Branagh is quick to point out that this is not the first time he has altered the time period to fit the play. Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing were both shifted to the 1800s, and even Henry V "blurred the lines" surrounding the actual time period. The only difference is that, with Love's Labour's Lost, the time frame is explicitly stated.
Making a musical, regardless of whether it involves text by Shakespeare or not, imposes a special set of burdens on a director and his actors. In the first place, a lengthy period of rehearsal - three and a half weeks in this case- was necessary to perfect the singing and dancing. During that time, Branagh had personal vocal and dance coaches working with all of the actors. His intention, which was achieved, was that there would be no dance doubles on camera - everyone would be performing their own footwork. Likewise, no one's voice would be dubbed or electronically altered. For better or worse, everyone is singing their own part. (However, there were some occasions during which re-recording had to be done when actors slipped out of character and began singing with too much technical precision.)
It remains to be seen how the public will react to Love's Labour's Lost. Branagh's Shakespeare movies have fared well with the art film crowd, but his previous three efforts have been more traditional than this one. In many ways, with its unorthodox approach, Love's Labour's Lost shares more with Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet or Julie Taymor's Titus than with Branagh's other work. Nevertheless, at its heart, even with the Gershwin, Hammerstein, and Porter tunes, this is still Shakespeare, and the movie is true to the play's spirit, if not always to its text. Those who are in the mood for it should find this to be a solid entertainment.
So what will Branagh do in the near future? His next project is a small black comedy called How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, in which he has an acting part. He thinks it's very funny, but isn't sure how it will fare with audiences. After that, he's due to write the screenplay for and star in a film version of Macbeth (although, contrary to some reports, he will not direct it) He has not, however, settled on his next directorial project. When he does, it's certain that he'll give it the same single-minded passion that he lavished upon this romantic musical comedy version of Love's Labour's Lost.
© 2000 James Berardinelli