- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2000

Kenneth Branagh arrives in Washington a bit camera-shy but in an exceptionally chipper frame of mind.

The prospect of an extended press tour on behalf of "Love's Labour's Lost," his latest Shakespearean movie, which opens in the Washington area June 23, seems to have produced a reminiscent glow.

"I remember that first tour very clearly and fondly," he says, alluding to an American trip in the fall of 1989 that anticipated the Christmas release of his debut film, a superlative version of "Henry V." Mr. Branagh, who turned 29 about the time the movie was released, received a pretty much rapturous response in the United States.

In fact, much of the resistance to the Branagh "Henry V" was confined to England, where the Belfast native had a certain history with theater critics and huffy patriots resented his sheer presumption at shooting a rival version to the Laurence Olivier "Henry V," released 44 years earlier.

Nevertheless, "Henry V" was an international triumph for Mr. Branagh. It brought him two Academy Award nominations and instant prestige as a film actor and director. More important in the long run, it also encouraged a resurgence of movies based on Shakespearean plays. That turnabout is still going strong.

Mr. Branagh has taken liberties with "Love's Labour's Lost," an early and problematical Shakespearean comedy. He transposes the setting to 1939 and inserts frequent musical numbers, drawing on vintage songs by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. As part of a production deal with Miramax in the United States and several partners in Europe, this whirlwind match of Shakespearean romantic farce and nostalgic musical comedy may be followed by movie versions of "Macbeth" and "As You Like It."

During the 1990s, Mr. Branagh directed movie versions of "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet." While still uncertain whether his uncut "Hamlet" would be financed, he shot a breezy and endearing backstage caprice titled "A Midwinter's Tale," which celebrated a troupe of actors staging a bargain-basement "Hamlet." He also played Iago opposite Laurence Fishburne's Othello in a film directed by Oliver Parker.

Though reassured by European bookings for his new productions, Mr. Branagh points out a bit wistfully: "We didn't do well in England. We got beaten up by the critics over there, and it hurt us to some extent. Now I wish I'd opened somewhere else first."

Isn't he about to open in the teeth of Fourth of July competition in the United States? "Yes, we've stepped into the summer pressure cooker here," he says, "but I hope we represent counterprogramming to American moviegoers. I shouldn't complain, of course, because a significant number of people in the U.K. will end up seeing the film despite the initial reviews. One of the heartening things is that you discover that these films have a very extended shelf life, thanks to video and DVD."

The romantic plot of "Love's Labour's Lost," which involves four noblemen who take a vow of celibacy and scholarship that is undermined immediately by an encounter with four attractive noblewomen, is thinly contrived, to put it kindly. A good deal of the comic relief depends on tortured wordplay and mocked pedantry. Nevertheless, there are speeches and interludes that can prove enchanting.

"It's very, very ornate," Mr. Branagh says. "You really do have to read some of it with the glossary by your side… . But what shone through was the ability of the play to be an audience pleaser. People don't mind the idea of a thin plot that's meant to crumble under the influence of love, which just obliterates all the lofty pretensions of the men.

"At the first preview, we got riotous laughs. Then the audience that had been going happily along with our kind of boulevardish comedy seemed just as content to go with the melancholy change of mood at the end of the play. It ended up feeling rather heartbreaking, and I liked that combination: high comedy, low comedy, a little grotesquerie, a sudden touch of melancholy."

Mr. Branagh notes that the oddness of "Love's Labour's Lost" has encouraged directors to "play fast and loose with what's there." The setting, ostensibly the kingdom of Navarre in medieval France, frequently is transposed and modernized. "Maybe directors share the feeling that there's a certain license implied in the writing," Mr. Branagh says.

"Something I quite like is the play's exuberance. It feels very youthful, with the playwright following whatever suits his fancy. It's often taken to task by academics for indiscipline. Admittedly, it's a bit odd to find yourself at Act 5 without any of the four couples having exchanged much in the way of conversation."

Mr. Branagh began thinking systematically about his own adaptation while playing a leading role for Woody Allen in "Celebrity" not long after Mr. Allen had taken an eccentric swing at musical comedy in "Everyone Says I Love You." A Royal Shakespeare Company production, in which Mr. Branagh was cast as the amorous king, had advanced the "Love's Labour's Lost" time frame to the 1870s and borrowed aspects of the impressionist ferment in the art world. Mr. Branagh decided to trust his sentimental attachment to impressions of the World War II period, including movie impressions that range from Fred Astaire musicals to the farewell scene of "Casablanca."

The role he once played, the king, is now the responsibility of a younger actor, Alessandro Nivola. Mr. Branagh assumes the role of the king's crony, Berowne, who monopolizes several eloquent meditations on love. The director wants it known that the obviously uneven singing and dancing skills of his troupe of actors were in no way meant to be confused with parody.

"We were trying our best and working our socks off," Mr. Branagh says.

The Victorian actor-manager Harley Granville-Barker influenced the musical pretext to some extent. "He once used the term 'Mozartian' to describe the play," Mr. Branagh says. "As you look at the language, you can't help noticing its musical quality. The comedy is punctuated with songs and dances. It ends with one of the more famous Shakespeare songs, which we had to sacrifice, I'm sorry to say. It just couldn't be reconciled with the great modern songs we decided to use.

Mr. Branagh abandoned an early attempt to write an original song score. "We tried, but it wasn't successful," he says. We? "Meaning me, while assuming that our composer, Patrick Doyle, would always do the music. He wrote some beautiful stuff for our stage productions of 'Twelfth Night' and 'As You Like It.' But I flopped as a pretender to the Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter mantles. So we went back to the pros. At first, we thought lesser-known songs would be preferable, but the play seemed to need classic tunes: 'I Get a Kick Out of You.' 'I Won't Dance.' 'The Way You Look Tonight.' 'Cheek to Cheek.' 'They Can't Take That Away From Me.' They were always much more precisely connected to the subject matter and texture of the play. They had the same economy and wit and clever way with words that Shakespeare had. Put them next to Shakespeare, and they stand up admirably."

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