Love's Labour's Lost. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Pathé, 2000.
Sheffield Hallam University
Tuckett, Debra. "Review of Love's Labour's Lost." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 23.1-6<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-1/tuckrev.htm>.
Adapted and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Produced by David Barron, Kenneth Branagh. Cinematography by Alex Thomson. Production designer Tim Harvey. Editors Neil Farrell and Dan Farell. Composer Patrick Doyle. Music producer Maggie Rodford. Choreographer Stuart Hopps. Musical vocal director Ian Adam. Costume designer Anna Buruma. With Kenneth Branagh (Berowne), Alessandro Nivola (King of Navarre), Matthew Lillard (Longaville), Adrian Lester (Dumaine), Geraldine McEwan (Holofernia), Alicia Silverstone (Princess of France), Emily Mortimer (Katherine), Carmen Ejogo (Maria), Natasha McElhone (Rosaline), Nathan Lane (Costard), Richard Briers (Sir Nathaniel),Timothy Spall (Don Armado), Stefania Rocha (Jaquenetta), JimmyYuill (Dull), Richard Clifford (Boyet), Anthony O'Donnell (Moth).
In his celebration of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known comedies, Kenneth Branagh seems to agree with Orsino that music is the food of love. In a daring transformation he has metamorphosed this most linguistic of plays into a delightful musical comedy, reifying the opinion of HB Charlton (1937) that "Love's Labour's Lost is more like a modern revue, or a musical comedy without music, than a play." Branagh has used classic songs by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern from the 1930's and 1940's era in the style of Hollywood song-and-dance musicals.
And when love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony. ( IV.III.340-341)
it does not feel inappropriate for Branagh to then sing, "Heaven, I'm in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak." When, during this song all four lovers literally float off into the heaven of the blue ceilinged dome of their Oxbridge library, the visual metaphor - reminiscent of the film Mary Poppins - perfectly represents both the ridiculous nature and the illusionary magic of romantic love.
To use the historical background of impending European war is not a new idea for this play. The RSC's 1993/4 production of Love's Labour's Lost (director, Ian Judge) was set in the Edwardian era immediately prior to the First World War and closed with the distant booming and flashing of heavy artillery. Branagh, however, capitalises on his chosen era of a 1939 mythical England and uses both customised and authentic1930s black and white newsreels. The non-historical voice-overs and news flashes are in a comic-book style, which serve to propel the plot along, as well as to provide an ironic frivolous counterbalance to the authentic footage used as a dénouement to furnish the happy ending of VE day reunions for the four pairs of lovers. In the spirit of the production, we must forgive the anachronistic stretching of Shakespeare's twelve months separation to the six years duration of World War II since Branagh takes all kinds of liberties, not least, by providing closure in allowing the lovers to be actually reunited at the end of his version.
Branagh does not spare us certain stock Elizabethan love imagery such as a huge, full moon, weeping willow trees and the sight of Rosaline "hunting" in the park practising archery with a bow and arrow. I particularly liked the linkage between Rosaline's command to Berowne that he should "visit the speechless sick … and jest a twelvemonth in an hospital" and the authentic black and white war footage (with the actors interposed) in which Berowne is seen in a field hospital. The stark contrast in the film between the carefully built up escapism and fantasy of romantic love and the dark clouds of death, war and separation is a mainly visual representation of Shakespeare's affirmation of the transforming power of love.
There are some intensely comic moments in the film when pure farce takes over in the form of Don Adriano de Armado and his somewhat transformed and hapless Moth, who says not a word, but is constantly used as a butt for Armado's extravagant romantic antics. While singing "I get a kick out of you" the ridiculously overdressed and overwrought Spaniard manages to reduce Moth to a physical wreck as he is covered in ash, squirted with champagne, tipped from a bi-plane and inadvertently kicked in a tender part of his anatomy. This is, of course, a long way from Shakespeare's witty and confident page and Branagh takes similar liberties with Holofernes whom he transmutes into a woman - Madam Holofernia - played by the excellent Geraldine McEwan. The suggestion in the play that Holofernia, the only woman allowed to remain in the confines of Navarre, is immune from love as the custodian of learning is quickly dispelled by her flirtatious romance with the doting Sir Nathaniel (Richard Briers). No one is allowed to escape the romance of love in this safe world except the cool observer and intermediary, Boyet. In Branagh's fantasy ending, he is the only casualty in the war, thus suggesting (uncharacteristically in Shakespeare's plots) that those who have not paired in love must die.
Branagh himself plays a gentle, compassionate and comic Berowne, not unlike his Benedick in the film version of Much Ado About Nothing. He admires what he sees as a generosity of spirit in the character, despite his flawed and silly tendencies. He does, of course get to speak the best lines in the play:
A lover's eyes will gaze an eagle blind;
A lover's ear will hear the lowest sound,
Love's feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails:
Love's tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste. (IV.III.330-335)
This long and beautiful speech would have had more emotional impact without the overkill of orchestral "film" music in the background. Branagh could have been braver and trusted Shakespeare's poetry to weave its own magic. Patrick Doyle's period-appropriate arrangements of the classic 30's songs worked well, but his sweeping orchestral themes, which are meant to conjure the nostalgia of Golden Age Hollywood, detracted from Branagh's sensitive rendition of the love poetry. Nonetheless, Branagh has attempted an ebullient and original interpretation of Love's Labour's Lost and succeeded by adhering to the spirit rather the letter of the play.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).