Love’s Labours’s Lost

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Movie Review by Lola Knipe

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Alicia Silverstone, Alessandro Nivola
Director: Kenneth Branagh

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST is Kenneth Branagh’s latest Shakespearean adaptation for the screen and it marks a brave and slightly eccentric departure for him. He has turned this bittersweet comedy into a flamboyant musical that draws on the music of Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. He has cast many fresh faces including Alicia Silverstone who plays the self-assured Princess of France – a far cry from her ditzy character in CLUELESS, and Alessandro Nivola (FACE OFF, BEST LAID PLANS) as the youthful and idealistic King of Navarre. Instead of the Elizabethan era, the action takes place at the end of the 1930s with the Second World War looming.

Branagh contrasts genuine footage from the trenches, and bulletins about Hitler’s manoeuvres in Europe with the romantic escapades of the central characters. The film begins in the Oxford college where the King of Navarre is studying – he entreats his three fellow students and friends, Berowne (Kenneth Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard) and Dumaine (Adrian Lester), to join him in signing a public oath. This oath forbids them to see any woman for three years, with the aim of devoting themselves entirely to academic study during this time. Berowne is the only one who is reluctant to make the pledge, and reminds the king that the Princess of France and her entourage are on their way to England to visit them, putting them all in a rather tricky situation. Sure enough, when the Princess and her three attractive companions – Rosaline (Natascha McElhone), Maria (Carmen Ejogo) and Katherine (Emily Mortimer), do arrive – the four young bachelor’s commitment to singledom begins to falter.

Attached to the royal households there are a host of humorous characters, portrayed by some of Britain’s finest comic actors. Richard Briers plays one of the king’s tutors, who is secretly besotted by the king’s other tutor, Holofernia, impeccably acted by Geraldine McEwan. This duo’s joint rendition of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ almost tempted me to burst into spontaneous applause. However the prominence of some of the songs was precisely what lets this film down. I had the sensation of moving from one classic Hollywood tune to the next, which may work in theatrical entertainment, but does not work in the cinema. The major difference between Branagh’s film, and the glamour of the thirties musicals that he seems so keen to recreate (even to the point that he shot practically everything on traditional sound stages in Shepperton studios), is that their songs were specially composed to embellish the action, whereas his upbeat musical selection glares out, interrupting the action and only superficially mirroring the characters and their feelings.

That said, the film’s musical extravagance does not cloud some excellent performances, in particular by Natascha McElhone who is deliciously feisty and quick-tongued as Rosaline, Timothy Spall who is highly entertaining as a Spanish nobleman, and even (dare I say it) Kenneth Branagh as the vivacious yet reflective Berowne – he (Kenneth) seems to be getting less smug in his old age.

In conclusion – if you like Shakespeare all wrapped up in silk and chiffon, then this movie is for you. If you prefer more grit and less sheen, you may find yourself annoyed by the happy-go-lucky mood that permeates this film, and a celebratory ending that was not in the original. Many film-makers have succeeded in adapting Shakespeare for a modern audience without diminishing the playwright’s subtle genius, Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is an outstanding case in point, but Branagh has reduced the substance of the original play by adding too many frills and too much gloss.

4 out of 6 stars