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IN SHORT: Simply, a masterpiece
I had written an earlier rave about this movie and was content with it, until I read a major entertainment mag's rag on Branagh in lieu of review. Cranky got pissed off. So, a couple of things you should know, if you don't already. I spent the first fifteen years of my working life in the rock 'n' roll radio biz. I could quote lyrics from obscure, twenty year old songs that no one had heard of off the top of my head and be accurate. I hated musical theater, though kind of liked Fred Astaire's Top Hat and didn't pay much attention to anything written before 1956 or so. My knowledge of Shakespeare was equally limited to what I had suffered through in college -- real "Master Thespian" stuff. One of the benefits of this gig is that I've gotten a bit more Bard literate, which is why this season's line-up was of interest. First came Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, set in modern corporate New York. Very interesting concept, I thought. Next up was Kenneth Branagh's version of Love's Labour's Lost, staged as a 1930s musical. I honestly thought Branagh was out of his mind. But Hamlet was awful, film student pretentious crap. Besides, Shakespeare had made the jump to musical format before, though rewritten and as West Side Story ("Romeo and Juliet," for those of you who want to be on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) So . . .
As I've written it before, you could put Shakespeare's words through a meat grinder, add an egg and some bread crumbs, whack it into palatable little meat patties and serve it up with a nice chianti and you still would have to double over backwards to do serious harm to his stories. That's why said stories still work four hundred plus years later. It's also a matter of fact that the full text of his plays can take hours to unfurl, when orated from the stage (or screen. Rent Branagh's uncut Hamlet if you want to test your endurance levels -- and we liked KB's version, btw). Now, remember that we don't compare to Source Material, not that our knowledge of Shakespeare extends very far, which allows us to avoid the purist view which may liken Branagh's take as the first sign of Armageddon. 'cuz it's not. So here we have Love's Labour's Lost, Branagh's all-singing, all-dancing, all-sensational revamp of a play first staged in 1596. Branagh's audacious take on one of Shakespeare's simplest stories owes as much to vaudeville and the Marx Brothers as it does to Fred and Ginger's stylish movies of the 1930's.
Like Richard III a couple of years back, Love's Labour's Lost is set in the World War II time period, here with France preparing for war. In the neighboring country of Navarre, the King (Alessandro Nivola) has decided that war is for sissies and has issued a proclamation that all men of his kingdom; in this case specifically himself and his three closest courtiers, shall devote themselves to intellectual study and spiritual enhancement. This means a full day's fast each week, food every other day, and only three hours of rest before returning to their study of all things wise and wonderful.
Oh, one more thing. No women. Not to talk to, to consort with, to wine and/or dine and/or ... you know ... for three years. Penalties for breaking their solemn vows include having your tongue ripped out. And while Longaville (Matthew Lillard) and Dumaine (Adrian Lester) acknowledge their Word of Honor by signing their names to the Proclamation, Berowne (Kenneth Branagh) hesitates, pointing out that "the Princess of France is an intelligent woman and you may need to negotiate treaties with her" (I'm paraphrasing badly), so a lack of tongue could prove to be a problem. Besides, he sings to the King while cueing an offscreen orchestra, "I'd Rather Charleston". Yes, sings. The women will eventually respond ("I Won't Dance. Don't Ask Me") as the men find themselves smitten by the Princess (Alicia Silverstone) and her Court (Emily Mortimer, Carmen Ejogo and Natascha McElhone). Things haven't changed much in the last 400 years. A guy raises an eyebrow. A woman says "no" and we drop like the cow that's been whacked between the eyes. The trick for the men is how to court the ladies without anyone finding out. They, of course, do that miserably. Their chosen messenger is an illiterate clown named Costard (Nathan Lane, mixing Harpo Marx and Senor Wences into one raccoon-coat wearing vaudevillian personage) who delivers the right letters to the wrong people. A happy ending evolves into a bittersweet romance as the inevitable war reaches the border of Navarre. Laying all this out doesn't spoil a thing.
Until that point, though, the flick is packed with just about every song worth remembering from any Fred and Ginger movie. To the horror of the purists, the songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, among the best known names, all take the place of pages of dialog that has been excised. What remains, according to the notes, is about 30% of the original play and, frankly, had I not read that in black and white I wouldn't have known it. The only other major change to the text is the sexual reassignation of one of the King's tutors Holofernia (Geraldine McEwan), now female. When she gets her solo, it'll make perfect sense.
If you're old enough to know what came before rock 'n' roll, there's not a dud song in the bunch. What I do know is that, among the paltry skill set I possess, is that when it was a new idea to insert appropriate song lyrics into network news pieces and documentaries, the lyrical knowledge of your humble servant was called up to do some of the earliest work. In the twenty years since, that's an art that has been lost. On first glance, sticking the songs into this flick is a clever and enjoyable gimmick. On closer analysis, this after sitting through the film a second time, the song selection and the lyrical content is so dead on the money that I can honestly say that I couldn't have picked 'em better myself. And I've got a pair of industry Gold Medals to back that up that kind of claim. It took Branagh and his crew (Maggie Rodford has the music producer credit) a year and a half to figure out the lineup, more on that work in Branagh's StarTalk interview.
Can this cast sing? Outside of Nathan Lane, the range is tolerable to passable, but it all goes to emphasize the idea that we're looking at real people, not something out of a "Master Thespian" textbook. Alicia Silverstone's StarTalk interview covers that in more detail. Once you come out of the theater, if your head is still doing the humming, I'd strongly advise picking up the soundtrack CD, which seamless mixes the songs with composer Patrick Doyle's lush underscore.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Love's Labour's Lost, he would have paid...
We got rules <vbg> -- I went back willingly. Love's Labour's Lost is a perfect Astaire-Rogers type '30's musical, even for those of us who grew up on Led Zep.
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