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'Love's Labour's Lost'

Fizzy Shakespeare: Branagh's 'Love's Labour's Lost' dances lightly

Friday, September 01, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's not often that you leave a Shakespearean adaptation humming a Gershwin tune. Then again, this version of "Love's Labour's Lost" isn't your typical presentation of the Bard's comedy.

 
   
'Love's Labour's Lost'


RATING: Rated PG for mild sensuality.

STARRING: Kenneth Branagh

DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh

CRITICS' CALL: 2 1/2 stars

 
 

Kenneth Branagh has turned the play into a musical comedy and plunked it into 1939, a time when men and women (on the movie screen) broke into song and dance at the drop of a top hat or champagne glass. In fact, this venture feels as if it were conceived over a glass -- or three -- of bubbly. That might explain Branagh's decision to cast Alicia Silverstone as the princess of France, a part she was not born to play.

She is the one wrong note in this audacious, often delightful adaptation. It's fun to watch Branagh crib the cinematic conventions of times past: water ballet numbers worthy of Esther Williams, faux grainy newsreels, dance numbers in which the men wear tuxedos and the women the sort of floor-grazing gowns that swirled around Ginger Rogers.

Even the opening credits are a throwback; they appear over the folds of a drape of rich red cloth. The music is classic: Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin. The voices are a little shaky.

Those familiar with the work will recognize its bones: The king of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his lords pledge to spend the next three years studying. That means they will give up the pursuit of women -- an oath they live to regret the moment the princess (Silverstone) and her three attendants appear.

The kingdom is soon rife with romance, subterfuge, secret seductions and confusion wrought by the inability of Costard the clown (Nathan Lane) to deliver the right love letter to the right woman. The mutual attraction between the lords and ladies is tested during a masked meeting that sizzles in a way Shakespeare never could have imagined.

The merriment ends with word that the king of France has died. The pledge to stay apart for a year is lengthened, in this case, by World War II.

High school students who think they can watch Branagh's version instead of reading the real thing, should be warned: "We've trimmed the play," Branagh says. "We have cut much of the material that was of contemporary relevance in 1596, but which is harder to convey in cinema today."

The screenplay has about 25 to 30 percent of the play's words. Branagh, no fool he, didn't tamper with some of the most beautiful lines, spoken by his character of Berowne: "And when love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony."

It's heaven to listen to Branagh recite his lines; there is none of the awkwardness and self-consciousness that is evident in Silverstone's portrayal. The "Clueless" star is clueless and pales in comparison to Natascha McElhone (Truman's onetime sweetheart in "The Truman Show") who plays Berowne's lady love, Rosaline.

In addition to Branagh-McElhone and Nivola-Silverstone, the other pairings are: Matthew Lillard and Carmen Ejogo along with Adrian Lester and Emily Mortimer. The surprise is "Primary Colors" player Lester, who won an Olivier Award (London's Tony) for his work in "Company." He is the best dancer in the company, graceful and light on his feet.

Watching "Love's Labour's Lost," opening today at the Denis, is like drinking champagne. After you drain your fluted glass you feel a little giddy but the fizzy feeling quickly fades.



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