Love's Labour's Lost (United States/United Kingdom, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Love's Labour's Lost has always been regarded as one of the most enigmatic of Shakespeare's plays. In modern times, it is almost never performed, and, unlike the text of the Bard's major works, it fails to come alive on the printed page. In an introduction to the play, Professor G.B. Harrison of the University of Michigan has this to say: "Love's Labour's Lost is at first sight a difficult play; it abounds in inexplicable lines, allusions, topicalities, jokes, and personalities so obscure and unintelligible that they bewilder even the most erudite of commentators... It should not be judged according to any critical rules of comedy, or as the work of the sage philosopher who afterward wrote Hamlet or Lear, but rather as a musical comedy, a revue, a trifle for the amusement of a select audience at a Christmas house party." Sage advice which apparently Kenneth Branagh (wearing the quadrupole hat of writer, director, (co-)producer, and actor) has taken to heart. His Love's Labour's Lost represents the first time this play has been committed to film, and the result is unlike any of Branagh's previous endeavors into the Bard's canon (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet).

Love's Labour's Lost is about 1/3 Shakespeare, 1/3 song-and-dance, and 1/3 ribald slapstick. At times, the wedding of these elements is awkward, but the overall result is strangely appealing. Branagh has envisioned the film as a romantic musical comedy, with an emphasis on the final two words of the term. To that end, he focuses strongly (perhaps too strongly) on the potential for physical comedy embodied by two of the play's most fatuous characters (Don Adriano de Armado, played by Timothy Spall, and Costard, played by Nathan Lane). Think Michael Keaton's Dogberry from Much Ado and multiply his screen time by about five. In addition, Branagh has elected to liven up the story by including about 10 musical numbers, often replacing lengthy verse-laden soliloquys with elaborate production numbers. But there's a catch. The play has been time-shifted into the late-1930s, allowing Branagh to incorporate standards of the era (by the likes of George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Oscar Hammerstein). As a result, we hear such familiar tunes as "The Way You Look Tonight", "Cheek to Cheek", and "There's No Business Like Show Business."

In many ways, Love's Labour's Lost has been imagined as an homage to the great musicals of the '30s and '40s. The opening titles are done in a retro-style, with a score by Patrick Doyle that could have been written 65 years ago. Many of the musical numbers are elaborately staged in a style that would make Busby Berkeley smile - including an in-the-pool sequence complete with frolicking women in bathing caps and overhead shots. The choreography is strong and the actors, none of whom appear to be professional singers or dancers, acquit themselves admirably. The 3 1/2 weeks of rehearsals and practice were obviously put to good use.

The story is undoubtedly the movie's weakest point, and does not stand out as one of Shakespeare's high points. We are introduced to the four male leads: King Ferdinand of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola), and his three best friends, Berowne (Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard), and Dumain (Adrian Lester). In concert, these four have agreed to sign a ridiculous pact: for three years while students at a university, they will fast, sleep only three hours per day, and forego women. Berowne warns that the oath is not one that any of them will be able to keep, and his words prove to be prophetic. When the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) arrives with her three lady attendants, Rosaline (Natascha McElhone), Maria (Carmen Ejogo), and Katherine (Emily Mortimer), all of the men are smitten. But complications ensue when Berowne entrusts a love letter to the king's clown, Costard. At the same time, Don Adriano de Armado gives the fool a missive professing his love for a local wench, Jaquenetta (Stefania Rocca) - and Costard mixes the letters up.

After sticking rigorously to the text of Hamlet, Branagh does an about-face with Love's Labour's Lost, gleefully excising nearly half of the play. However, while one can argue about the validity of any cuts to Hamlet, few will debate that pruning is necessary to avoid turning Love's Labour's Lost into a terminal bore. Even with the inclusion of the musical numbers (which probably total about 30 minutes of screen time), the film clocks in at a skinny 95 minutes, emphasizing how thin the actual storyline is. The energy level is not as high here as it was in Much Ado, nor are the characters especially well-developed. In Much Ado (as well as in many of Shakespeare's other comedies), we care about the plight of the protagonists, but in Love's Labour's Lost, none of them has enough screen time to develop a personality.

Branagh's slant towards physical comedy will almost certainly offend some Shakespeare buffs (if the inclusion of show tunes hasn't already gotten them). Comedy is very much a subjective thing; I found some of Lane and Spall's antics to be amusing, but there were other times when I thought they were overdone and silly. But Branagh's intention is clear - he wants his audience to enjoy this film on a more visceral level than is usually the case with Shakespeare. To emphasize this, he includes fake MovieTone news reels that, eschewing Shakespearean English, give running updates to the plot so that there's no fear of anyone getting lost. This approach also allows Branagh to tweak things so that the move in time to 1939 offers a little more than just window dressing.

The best elements of the film are the musical numbers. Especially noteworthy is a sultry rendition of "Let's Face the Music and Dance", which features the men in tee-shirts and tight black pants dancing in close proximity to the women, whose costumes feature fishnet stockings and ample cleavage. The real show-stopper is Nathan Lane's "There's No Business Like Show Business." And the concluding song, "They Can't Take That Away From You" offers a mixture of hope, melancholy, and anticipation. And, while some of the songs-and-dances are incorporated better into the overall production than others, all of them represent welcome interludes.

The quality of the acting is not at the same high caliber it was for Branagh's other Shakespeare movies. As Berowne, he is his usual emotive self, delivering every line with assurance and conviction. Likewise, veterans Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers (a "regular" - he has been in every Branagh-directed feature except Dead Again) are solid, albeit in the small parts of Holofernia and Nathaniel, two of Ferdinand's tutors. As has been his mode of operation, in looking to attract as wide an audience as possible, Branagh has reached into the mainstream acting pool for some of his performers. Alicia Silverstone, while not completely at ease with all of her dialogue, is surprisingly credible, as are Alessandro Nivola (last seen romancing Fanny Price in Mansfield Park), Natascha McElhone (Ronin), Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejago, and Adrian Lester (who is easily the best dancer in the group). The only one completely incapable of carrying his weight is Matthew Lillard (Scream), who doesn't seem to have a clue about either Shakespeare or Branagh's vision.

Although Love's Labour's Lost does not score the kind of complete success that Branagh has achieved with his other Shakespeare adaptations, it is a welcome addition, not only because it represents the first time the play has been brought to the screen, but because it shows the lengths to which the director is willing to stretch the envelope. Flaws (most of which are minor) aside, Love's Labour's Lost is an enjoyable trifle, especially for those who don't take their Shakespeare too seriously and those who love the old Hollywood musicals as much as Branagh obviously does.

Love's Labour's Lost (United States/United Kingdom, 2000)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2000-06-09
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1