Saturday, January 10, 2009

Movie Review: Love's Labour's Lost

One of the great things about a snow advisory is that it provides a great excuse to sit around at home and idly flip through the channels to see what is on. This month one of the free movies available on my cable subscription is Kenneth Branagh's version of Love's Labour's Lost, which he re imagines as a movie musical set in the 1940s. As I noted in an earlier post, this was far from a great film and had some atrocious acting. However, since I had the time, I decided to revisit it to see if my initial judgment was correct. While the flaws that I noted earlier still ring true, I must admit that the film's concept is actually quite interesting, even if the execution leaves a great deal to be desired.

Love's Labour's Lost is one of the oddest of Shakespeare's plays; even though it is considered a comedy, it doesn't have a traditional comedic happy ending. Furthermore, some consider it to be the most Elizabethan of Shakespeare's works, and a great deal of the language and word puns are not easily understandable (or even translatable) for modern audiences. Consequently, Kenneth Branagh's idea of taking the play, cutting the hell out of it (approximately 1/3 of the dialogue from the original remains), and replacing sonnets and word play with songs and dancing isn't a completely horrible idea, at least on paper.

However, problems arise when these ideas are realized. Branagh does make some helpful and effective choices, such as including periodic newsreel footage that recaps the information for the audience. Unfortunately, this decision is utterly necessary, since it is very difficult to understand the plot if you are relying solely on the actors. Although some of the actors have a strong grasp of the language and Adrian Lester, as Dumaine, is quite facile at singing and dancing, the entire production feels rather shoddy and half-finished. Even though the actors gamely try their best and are quite energetic, their enthusiasm doesn't always make up for their lack of skill at singing, dancing, or interpreting Shakespeare's language. Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard seem particularly lost, and their line readings are often embarrassing to watch.

The other problem is that Branagh's homage to the movie musical of the 1930s and 1940s (think Fred and Ginger) lacks the original musicals' wit and polish. Some have noted that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers understood the inanity of their genre; consequently, they have a twinkle in their eye as they deliver their lines. However, Branagh et al's take on the movie musical waffles between complete sincerity (see any number that Branagh is in) and winking acknowledgement of the genre's limitations (the patently fake sets, the purposefully [one hopes] horrible choreography for "The Way You Look Tonight).

The other problem is the abrupt change of tone at the end, even though it is arguably the most effective scene in the entire film. While most of the movie takes on a frothy, light tone (Nathan Lane is in the cast, for crying out loud), the last 10 minutes bring a sudden death and the start of World War II. As the ladies leave, the characters break out into Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and we are treated to a black and white montage of the characters dealing with the war. The result is Fred and Ginger meet Casablanca. Even though this is incongruous and not entirely successful, it is the most surprisingly moving part of the entire film.

Love's Labour's Lost is undoubtedly flawed. Even my high school students, who readily admitted that they had a difficult time understanding and interpreting Shakespeare, were stunned into silence when faced with Alicia Silverstone's attempts at speaking the bard's language. However, it isn't a bad introduction to the play, and there are much worse ways of spending 90 minutes of a snowy Saturday night than watching a group of actors willingly and agreeably attempt to tackle singing, dancing, and Shakespeare in one fell swoop.