Movie Magazine International

Love's Labour's Lost

France/UK/USA - 2000

Movie Review By Casey McCabe

I recently heard a story about a college student who translated the lyrics of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album into Latin as part of an ambitious finals project. This little NPR niblet came back to me on the ride home from watching Kenneth Branagh’s new film Love’s Labour’s Lost, which fuses Shakespeare’s romantic comedy with the glassy-eyed Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. The question each project poses, beyond "can it be done" and perhaps, "why?" is whether two classic sources of inspiration are better than one.

We will never hear Paul McCartney sing "When I’m LXIV" but we do have the chance to watch Branagh get totally Gershwin on Shakespeare, and the results are resoundingly mixed.

Love’s Labour’s Lost places the story, and most of Shakespeare’s words intact, in 1939 Europe, where a dashing young king has enjoined three male companions in a pact. They will forgo the pleasures of the outside world for three years in order to better fill their minds with knowledge. Number one on the list of distractions is women. And of course it is mere minutes before Alicia Silverstone’s French Princess shows up at the castle gate with the requisite number of pleasurably distracting women.

In recent romantic comedies, and the entire run of certain TV sitcoms, the romantic couple typically spend most of their time openly loathing each other before looking up in the last act to recognize it was that old devil love all along. Perhaps that’s why the notion of love being instantaneous, reciprocal and capable of making a grown man giddy as a school girl seems as dated as Shakespeare, or at least a 1930s Hollywood musical. For this reason, Branagh’s take shouldn’t offend too many Shakespeare purists. The first time Branagh himself breaks into song and dance it is both effortless and amusing: Shakespeare meets Irving Berlin and we marvel at the unlikely couple’s compatibility. Branagh has chosen 10 of the most wonderfully enduring songs and introduced them to history’s most lyric storyteller. Yet just a few song and dances into Love’s Labour’s Lost, the novelty has worn off, replaced by the odd discomfort that Bill and Irving, George, Ira and Cole are indeed from two different worlds, and the valiant efforts of the matchmaker are becoming somewhat, well….laboured.

There’s also Nathan Lane in the comic relief role as Costard, the Clown. In following the 1930s theme, Lane is encouraged to go pure vaudeville. And the film’s several attempts at slapstick mostly remind us why vaudevillians no longer make a living.

In the end, Branagh stays truer to the old Hollywood musical than to Shakespeare. In the original, love’s labours were allowed to be lost. In the film they are rescued and reunited just in time for the coda. All well and good, perhaps. Both Shakespeare and Branagh were having a good lark, I suppose. I just happened to wince more often than a good lark should warrant. Maybe I’m just being cynical. But then, we’re all ultimately a product of our times, right?

© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 6/14/00

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