Kenneth Branagh is obviously a great fan of William Shakespeare, as made clear by his many adaptations of the Bard’s greatest works. Just some among them include Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and, most recently, As You Like It. Serving as director of these films has earned him a lot of praise, and it’s unfortunate that I haven’t been able to see any of them aside from today’s main attraction. I say it’s unfortunate because if I had never heard of Branagh before diving into this miserable failure I would have thought he was a complete hack.
It’s become standard practice these days to not simply present Shakespeare’s writings but conceptualize them, placing them in different periods of history or stylizing them in order to point out certain themes or modern perspectives. Branagh has played on both sides of the coin, keeping his Hamlet rooted in its original world while dropping the plot of As You Like It into 19th century Japan. For Lost he really went for broke by not only setting his version during World War II but also inserting the songs of composer Cole Porter into the mix. What you end up with is one of the strangest, stomach-churning musicals ever to hit the silver screen.
At first Branagh seems to be going for a wholly comic piece, opening his film not with Shakespearean text but an original sequence made to look like an old-fashioned newsreel of the 1930’s. An overly enthusiastic announcer lays down the cliff notes for those of us too lame-brained to bother with plot development, explaining that a “king” and his cohorts have sequestered themselves away from the world (and, more specifically, women) so as to become more learned gentlemen. Stock footage of the world at large being bombarded by Hitler’s forces combined with the announcer’s silly delivery actually makes for some bizarre satire, but Branagh doesn’t continue the thought. Instead, he decides to take us in about three wholly different directions.
There is, of course, the singing and dancing, which no one here can do particularly well. One look at the behind-the-scenes feature on the DVD proves how uncomfortable the cast was at singing and dancing at the same time (they honestly act like they’ve never even heard of such a concept), and their unease is evident in the finished product. Of the men, Matthew Lillard easily fares the worst, as his singing is extremely strained and borderline whiny. Granted, he should have never been cast in the first place, as he can’t deliver a word of Shakespeare’s verse to save his life, but at the time I’m sure it was thought his name would draw in some teenie-boppers. The same goes for Alicia Silverstone, who in this film makes it very clear why her career dropped off so quickly after Clueless. She has no idea what she’s doing in this project, and nothing she does seems motivated or based in conviction.
And even when there are a few instances of able singing or dancing onscreen, it doesn’t change the fact that this is such a horribly realized concept. Branagh has no idea how to film the music numbers, letting the camera wander and float as if it’s literally not being controlled by anyone. Even in widescreen the performers are almost never fully framed, making their movement seem disjointed and hard to follow. What was everyone thinking? I’ll put it bluntly: I don’t often note camerawork in my reviews, but this has got to be one of the most poorly shot features I’ve ever experienced.
But wait, there’s more! Just when you think Branagh has decided to give you nothing more than a frivolous, failed musical romp, he decides he wants to take the project seriously. Dead serious. There are five to ten minute chunks of film where dead-eyed actors (Branagh among them) simply sit across from one another and schmooze with all the depth of a wafer-thin coaster, and it’s interminable to say the least. You can’t expect me to pay attention to the romance if the performances are so terrible and the rest of the film is so lightweight. Give me a break! Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, the movie ends with the characters parting ways so they can participate in the war effort. So we get lots of shots of men facing the terrors of battle, women fretting about their loves, and—I’m not kidding—wacky comic relief characters being sent to death camps. Don’t worry though, they all reunite at the end for a big, happy finale. … What the hell was Branagh trying to say here? Is he literally out of his gourd?
Love’s Labour’s Lost will have your jaw on the floor. It is without a doubt one of the great movie musical/Shakespearean adaptation train wrecks of our time, and I have to wonder what everyone involved thinks about it looking back. Sadly the DVD offers no insight beyond the paltry and clearly whitewashed behind-the-scenes look, but maybe one day Branagh will finally be cornered and made to explain himself. When that day comes, you can bet I’ll be there with bated breath.