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This 'Love's' a Labour

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2000


    'Love's Labour's Lost' From left to right, Adrian Lester, Kenneth Branagh, Alessandro Nivola, Matthew Lillard, Alicia Silverstone and Natascha McElhone. (Miramax)
KEN, KEN, KEN, not another Shakespeare, pleeeeeeez.

No, it's not William Shakespeare, I object to, per se. It's the semi-inspired creativity you bring to these projects. Your dedication is not in question. Your ability to make something of it, that's the issue. Of course, "Henry V" was your finest hour or two on film. But since then, this Ken-and-Bill thing has gotten old. Case in point: this sophisticated, Cole-Porterish version of "Love's Labour's Lost" which is, frankly, labored.

In the year 1939, the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) has forsworn all women so he can dedicate himself to three years of distraction-free study. He persuades three dedicated friends, Longaville (Matthew Lillard), Dumaine (Adrian Lester) and the wiser, reluctant Berowne (Kenneth Branagh) to join him.

Unfortunately for their platonic plan, the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) is scheduled to visit on official business, accompanied by three attractive, eligible women: Katherine (Emily Mortimer), Maria (Carmen Ejogo) and Rosaline (Natascha McElhone).

Although all four men find a woman they love in that group (their attractions conveniently echoed by the respective woman), they are obligated to continue their course of study.

They cannot contain themselves, however. And behind each other's backs, they write letters of confession which – in keeping with Shakespearean comedy – fall into the wrong hands. Spanish nobleman Don Armado (Timothy Spall), who falls in love with Jaquenetta, also falls afoul of misdelivered missives when he entrusts the clownish Costard (Nathan Lane) to deliver his declaration of love.

And so on and so on. The performers are dressed in the waxy, top hat-and-tails elegance of the 1930s. And all of them get a song-and-dance opportunity to mourn or celebrate the crazy-wonderful qualities of love, courtesy of the great standards of Berlin, Kern, Gershwin and others.

Thus we have Berowne…lovesick for Rosaline…singing Porter's "Cheek to Cheek," before rising toward the ceiling, along with his friends, the way Julie Andrews and the kids did in "Mary Poppins." We watch the amusingly clumsy Don Armado, trying to sing Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You." The women sing "No Strings (Fancy Free)" and everyone does "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Although Spall has his comic moments, and although Branagh displays earthily sexual wit between the four pairs of lovers in his staging of the "Let's Face the Music and Dance," the movie's a feature-length drag on the senses. The Hollywood magic this movie so ardently clasps to its bosom is nonexistent. And none of the original cast members, with the exception of Lane and Lester (who's a dancer), has the chops or presence for powerful singing or dancing. This not-ready-for-Broadway method worked well in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" because the performers weren't trying to monkey their betters – I mean, the Astaires, Rogers and Kellys.

But here there's a terrible strain imposed upon the audience as we watch well-intentioned actors doing their best and predictably falling short.

How can we revel in the magic of, say, Irving Berlin, when a collection of vigorous but uncharismatic performers are paying tribute? We're reminded, even more than usual, of the artificiality of stage plays and musicals. This may not be dinner theater, but it's mighty close for comfort. Branagh's idea, to make these un-consummated romances continue through a montage of World War II warfare, then reach a climactic finale during the Paris peacetime celebrations, is a thoughtful but feeble attempt to prove again – yawn – that Shakespeare works in any setting. Instead of feeling the transcendentalglory of love in the City of Light, we're finding ourselves shifting uncomfortably in the dim fluorescence of Branagh's vision.

LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST (PG, 95 minutes) – Contains nothing objectionable.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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