Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 2000.

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There have been successful musicals based on Shakespeare plays such as Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story. In Love's Labour's Lost, however, Kenneth Branagh's attempt to marry Shakespeare to the romantic musical genre of the 30s and 40s, though it has an appealing innocence and charm, doesn't quite come off. The musical numbers such as Just The Way You Look Tonight, I've Got a Crush on You, There's No Business Like Show Business and others from Berlin, Porter, Kern, and Gershwin are timeless of course, yet the songs and dance routines are inserted randomly throughout the film, often without connection to the story. To accommodate the tunes and the elaborate dance routines, two-thirds of the original Shakespearean text has been cut and the result is much good music but Shakespeare in name only.

The story itself is slight and the influence of the Italian commedia dell' arte is apparent. The setting is the fictional kingdom of Navarre but Branagh updates it to pre-war Europe in the 30s using parodies of Movietone newsreels to frame the action. The young King (Alessandro Nivola) and his three friends, Longaville (Matthew Lillard), Dumaine (Adrian Lester) and the courtly Berowne (Kenneth Branagh) take an oath that they will devote themselves to an ascetic regimen of study for three years, renouncing the pleasures of women, sleeping only three hours a night, and fasting once a week. Berowne, who many see as a stand-in for the Earl of Oxford, is "the merry madcap lord" whose "…eye begets occasion for his wit; For every object that the one doth catch, The other turns into a moving jest."

Of course, the three friends quickly yield to temptation as the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) arrives with three women, Maria (Carmen Ejogo), Katherine (Emily Mortimer) and Rosaline (Natascha McElhone). The men fall in love and spend most of the time breaking their oath of abstinence. The theme of oath breaking so prominent in the play may be a gentle ribbing of Queen Elizabeth who, when lodging at Cambridge for five nights in 1564, violated her 1561 proclamation that no woman would ever be permitted to stay overnight at an English university or abbey. 

As usual, there are clowns inserted for comic relief: the swashbuckling Spanish soldier Don Adriano de Armado, played by Timothy Spall, and Costard, played by Nathan Lane. As Armado confesses that he is in love with Jaquenetta (Stefania Rocca), "a base wench", and Berowne is smitten with Rosaline (who bears a marked resemblance to Oxford's lover Anne Vasavour), an interchange of letters is delivered to the wrong parties and the comic relief soon turns into camp. Love's Labour's Lost is an early work, probably written in the 1580s, that seems to mock the affected style of writing known as Euphuism that flourished in that period. Most scholars agree, however, that touches were added that may date to the early 1590s. Interestingly, the play is not recognized as one of Shakespeare's best and was not performed for two hundred years after its opening. The Branagh film is its first cinematic version. 

Although the play contains some colourful characters, there is not enough time to allow us to feel invested in any of them and the acting, particularly that of Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard, does not measure up to the standards set by Branagh in his other Shakespeare adaptations. The greatness of the thirties musicals lay in the superior acting and dancing of people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Without professional singing and dancing, and actors worthy of the bard, updating the genre to the present day is an interesting bit of nostalgia but ends up being more of a spoof than an homage.

Howard Schumann
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