blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000, Kenneth Branagh)

It’s a funny idea, and it would explain a lot about Love’s Labour’s Lost, but I don’t think screenwriter, director, and co-producer Branagh cast Alicia Silverstone on a bet regarding whether or not he could get her to deliver an okay monologue.

He succeeds and she succeeds, but just okay, and it takes most of the movie. No, outside Adrian Lester, Natascha McElhone, and maybe Carmen Ejogo, Branagh doesn’t seem to have any actors in the leads he’s happy with. He’s one of the eight leads, of course, and he’s delighted with himself. He shows off somewhere in the late second act; he and McElhone get to do a scene from a great Shakespeare production in a middling adaptation on a disappointing set.

Branagh’s Labour’s is set just before World War II. Unlike some adaptations, the World War II setting will be necessary to the film’s narrative. Unfortunately, not so much to the character development because Silverstone’s the Princess of France, and asking her to do character development and deliver one okay monologue is a bridge too far.

Okay, real quick, here’s the setup. Top-billed and “lead” Alessandro Nivola decides, with war looming, he’s going to lock himself up in a library and learn for three years. Obviously, in the original play, there wasn’t World War II looming, but the effect in this Labour’s is to make Nivola seem like a foppish Eurotrash jackass who doesn’t care about the Nazis. Or would if Nivola had any character development. The film’s a musical—supposedly a thirties musical homage but not at all because there are usually only six performers and the movie’s Panavision—and Nivola manages to sing, dance, and monologue just well enough for his performance not to be a failure. He doesn’t succeed at anything, though, not even on a curve, especially not as far as romancing Silverstone.

See, Nivola and sidekicks Lester, Matthew Lillard, and Branagh have sworn off women for their academic pursuits. Silverstone and her sidekicks, McElhone, Emily Mortimer, and Ejogo, are on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan (or whatever Nivola’s country’s called, sadly not Freedonia) and they read the boys won’t be able to talk to them. Because of Branagh’s staging, directing, and Silverstone’s acting, the intentional trickery falls flat. There are multiple disguise sequences, which Branagh also messes up. He does a great job directing some of the film—not the musical numbers, except when it’s Nathan Lane, who’s the GOAT, and somewhat Timothy Spall, who feels like a Branagh idea gone wrong, not a studio casting mandate.

Oh, right, another thing: the songs performed by these not singers and dancers (except Lester and Lane) aren’t original to the film. They’re doing covers of thirties show tunes, which weren’t written with World War II or, you know, the King of Navarre’s romance troubles in mind. There are some good numbers (very much not dinner theatre Fosse) but never particularly good. Never good enough to cover the problems. So why do them?

Though when they’re not doing a musical number, Branagh relies on composer Patrick Doyle’s score to do all the film’s emoting. Even during Branagh and McElhone’s scenes.

The film barely runs ninety minutes and manages to plod through much of that runtime. Unfortunately, it takes way too long to get anywhere with the romance pairings—the musical numbers are asides, irrelevant to the plot—and then it’s time for the movie to end. Except, Branagh’s still doing a World War II movie, and he somehow brings it to a satisfactory conclusion. Miraculously, given the film’s annoying newsreel footage summary device… not to mention the very uneasy previous eighty or so minutes. It’s a hell of a save.

Performances: Branagh, McElhone, Lane; they’re great. Lester’s good. Spall and Ejogo get an incomplete. Nivola and Silverstone pass, him likable, her sympathetically. Lillard and Mortimer aren’t entirely unlikable, but they’re too thin to be sympathetic.

Technicals are all good. Alex Thomson’s photography’s great. Utterly wasted but great. And editor Neil Farrell is up to Branagh’s considerable requests for cutting the film into something sensical.

Whoever did the lackluster sets… it’s not their fault. Either Branagh didn’t have the money he needed, or he was bullshitting his way through the project. Seems more like the latter.

But one hell of a save for that finale.

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