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With: Kenneth Branagh, Alicia Silverstone, Alessandro Nivola, Natascha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo, Matthew Lillard, Adrian Lester, Emily Mortimer, Richard Briers, Geraldine McEwan, Stefania Rocca, Timothy Spall, Nathan Lane, Jimmy Yuill
Written by: Kenneth Branagh, based on a play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG for sensuality and a brief drug reference
Running Time: 94
Date: 02/14/2000

Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Facing the Music

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Although it has many predecessors and deep roots, I believe Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost is something rather unusual: a musical Shakespeare film, complete with singing and dancing. And though it may seem like a radical ground-breaking idea, the film itself contains nothing Earth-shattering. It's a delightful blend of past styles and songs that adds a much-needed zest to a dry and dreary movie season. (See my interview with Kenneth Branagh.)

The play is from Shakespeare; the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his three sidekicks Berowne (Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard), and Dumaine (Adrian Lester) announce that they will devote three years of their lives to study. This includes some very strict rules, such as only three hours of sleep at night, only one meal a day, and no women. Of course, no sooner have they begun their task than a Princess (Alicia Silverstone) and her three handmaidens (Natasha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo, and Emily Mortimer) arrive on the scene, and each of the four men conveniently fall for their choice of the four women, unbeknownst to each other. (One man and one woman are black, and I expected them to match up, but, refreshingly, they each choose a mate of a different race.)

It's an absolutely ridiculous plot, which lends itself well to a musical. Branagh has cleverly inserted songs that seem to fit the mood and to extend naturally from Shakespeare. The best example is when a line ends with the word "heaven," and then the song "Cheek to Cheek" starts with the lyric, "Heaven... I'm in heaven..."

Branagh has chosen vintage songs from the 1930's and 1940's by such composers as George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin. If you've seen your share of musicals from the period, you'll know all these songs, but Love's Labour's Lost gives them new breath. Sure, the singing isn't up to par with the old days, but the spirit is there.

The most fascinating thing about the movie is its combination of styles. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' musical numbers were always choreographed and photographed in one continuous take, showing everything, head-to-toe with no cuts. Branagh incorporates that style here, and even though his crew aren't quite as talented as Astaire and Rogers, they manage to pull it off with charm and exuberance, similar to what Woody Allen achieved with his wonderful 1996 Everyone Says I Love You.

But Branagh also takes into account the dreamlike facades and brilliant Technicolor usage of filmmakers like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes), Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis), and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain). The difference between the Fred & Ginger style and the Gene Kelly style has been debated for decades among musical cinema scholars, but Branagh has effortlessly combined them, making them one.

The performances are uniformly wonderful. They range from English performers I wasn't familiar with to Americans like Silverstone, Lillard, and Nathan Lane. Some audiences may have a hard time digesting Silverstone -- better known for her brain-dead teen characters -- as a princess speaking Shakespeare and singing and dancing. But she pulls it off beautifully and with comic aplomb. Lane is a true standout, nearly single-handedly bringing back Vaudeville with his rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Branagh's final touch is incorporating silly newsreel footage, explaining the plot in plain English so that we may concentrate instead on Shakespeare's poetry. It's a hilarious and brilliant way to ease some of the pressure and seriousness of Shakespeare. The newsreels also work with the time frame, updated to 1939 and on the eve of war. Shakespeare was never one for completely logical plots, and just as the lovers have begun to get together, World War II breaks out and everyone is separated. The ending is ambiguous, but Branagh and his cast make everything seem okay with a heartrending rendition of "They Can't Take That Away from Me."

Love's Labour's Lost is unabashedly old-fashioned, and it's going to lose points with some for not advancing the art of cinema. But I believe that it earns points for bringing back styles that many filmmakers seem to have forgotten ever existed. It helps that the movie is "presented" by none other than Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese -- a seal of approval from the directors of Singin' in the Rain and New York, New York (1977). Its total score brings it up to just a notch below Branagh's best work, Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996).

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