Kenneth Branagh‘s Love’s Labour‘s Lost mates one of Shakespeare’s frothier romantic comedies with the ‘30s musical, and on the face of it they make an attractive couple. Both traffic in the rush offered by flirtation and playing hard to get; both breeze along with offhand insouciance, underlit by a mature regret over the costs of love deflected or deferred. If only Branagh, whose career to date suggests a burning ambition to become Olivier for the masses, weren’t hobbled by a terror that never bothered Shakespeare, Cole Porter or Irving Berlin — the fear of flying high above the heads of a mass audience.
Perhaps on the rebound from his interminable Hamlet, Branagh has cut, pasted and aggressively abridged Love‘s Labour’s Lost, and piled it high with fancy visuals to make sure we get the drift. For starters, he seems nervous about trusting Shakespeare‘s text to set up the play’s rather flimsy premise, in which the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his three pals (played by Branagh, Matthew Lillard and Adrian Lester) vow to forswear the company of women for three years, the better to study philosophy. Updated to 1939, the film opens trickily with a brisk precis, proffered in the chipper syllables of Britain‘s Pathe news, which strove to keep the moviegoing public’s upper lip stiff as World War II bore down. Then the movie blazes into full ‘30s pomp with the arrival of four lovely distractions of the flesh, spearheaded somewhat implausibly by Alicia Silverstone, way out of her depth but gamely squeaking away like Minnie Mouse as the Princess of France.
The rest is mostly a strenuously lighthearted recitation of the fightflight dating strategies of four couples in the making, interrupted at frequent intervals by bursts into song and dance, and complicated by a crossed-wires subplot whose only highlights are the appearance of Nathan Lane as the vaudeville clown Costard, and Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan as the king’s elderly tutors, Nathaniel and Holofernia. For all their advanced years, Briers and McEwan are still good for a song and dance, and both know how to talk Shakespeare without yelling. Not so the rest of the cast, who declaim their lines and warble away with such pedagogic zeal they appear to be lip-synching for the hearing-impaired. When it comes to the frequently injected dance numbers, they fling themselves around for all the world like the Village People freely interpreting Top Hat, with the result that the movie more closely resembles a summer-camp revival of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers than any movie with Fred and Ginger in it. One pleasantly surprising exception is Natascha McElhone, a young woman blessed with such marble beauty that all she‘s had to do thus far (as the young Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway and the love interest in The Truman Show) is sit around and bat her beautiful eyelashes. The tall, willowy, emerald-eyed actress is born to look regal in sequined ’30s frocks, and she‘s a treat as Rosaline, the tart-tongued lady in waiting who won’t admit to having fallen in love.
As to Branagh, who plays Rosaline‘s suitor, Berowne, there’s an eagerness to please in his performance that goes beyond his character, a generous spirit who understands from the get-go that neither he nor the other young bloods will be able to stick to their vow of celibacy. Branagh‘s round, boyish, open face fairly pleads to be received into the fleshpots of pop. His career choices, both as actor and as director, have been dictated as much by his desire to become a Hollywood insider as by his much-publicized love affair with the Bard. Only in Much Ado About Nothing did he manage to fuse the two without coming off as trying too hard. For all its forays into black-and-white faux news footage, Love’s Labour‘s Lost feels like yet another theater piece grafted with Cinema. Only in the final act, when a royal death, a war, and a subdued 12-month pledge of chastity shift the tone to a more serious key, does the movie calm down and — blowing a wistful kiss to Casablanca — begin to tell us something about the urgent nobility of love in desperate times.