Reviewed by: Dr. Kenneth R. Morefield
|Featuring||Matthew Lillard, Alicia Silverstone, Nathan Lane, Kenneth Branagh, Alessandro Nivola|
|Producer||Kenneth Branagh, David Barron|
Plot: The king of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his three companions take an oath to forsake any female company for three years in order to devote themselves to study. Their vow is severely tried when the princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) arrives at the court with three attending ladies.
There is a line in the 1980s teen comedy “Real Genius” that sums up my response to director Kenneth Branagh’s latest experiment in Shakespeare for the masses. When a new college student arrives at his dorm room he finds its current occupant, played by Val Kilmer, struggling with a remote control flying satellite. As the metal orb goes whizzing by their heads, the two students dive for cover and hear it crash through the window and explode in the yard below. Kilmer’s character turns to his new roomate and asks, “Would you classify that as a design problem or a launch problem?”
The answer in regards to “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is both. One could blame the cast for the very awkward mix of Shakespearean language and 1930s music and dancing, but to do so would be to infer that there was nothing wrong with the plan they are trying to execute. If Branagh wanted to do a musical he should have hired dancers, not actors who could handle Elizabethan English. If he wanted to do Shakespeare, he should have hired actors and not singers who could carry a Cole Porter tune. If he just wanted a movie that looked glamorous in a red dress then Alicia Silverstone was qualified.
The film comes in at 93 minutes, which means to make room for the ten or so musical snippets the play has been gutted of just about everything but its premise. Branagh moves us from scene to scene with a series of 30s style newsreel voice-overs that are supoosed to elicit the era of the film, but instead come across as Cliff Notes synopses of all the plot that got cut. But even with the cuts to the plot, the film is not left with enough time to fully develop any of the musical numbers. The best movie or broadway musicals, such as “West Side Story,” use the musical numbers to advance the plot and develope the characters. Weaker ones simply stop the film to insert a set piece. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is definitely of the latter variety. When the male quartets see the French maidens we are supposed to know from their speech that they are in love. When they start singing “Cheek to Cheek” we are supposed to gather from their dancing that, by golly, they ARE in love. Since the music doesn’t develop story or characters, it stops all forward momentum. As a result the film drags at 93 minutes.
Branagh does an adequate job as a singer and dancer and he makes sure that nobody except him has an Elizabethan English monolgue of over ten lines. The actors and actresses look appealilng, but they just have nothing to do. Perhaps the film could have worked if Branagh had tried an “inspired by” version of the play, a la “Clueless” or “Cruel Intentions”—that is if he had truly TRANSLATED the story to another setting instead of just moving it. I imagine there will be people who like this film. And if it was a first effort from a new director learning what he can and can’t do well, its gimmicky nature would be more forgiveable. Coming from the director of “Henry V,” “Hamlet,” and “Dead Again”, it is a major disappointment.
Morals of the Story:
There is barely enough story here to get us from musical number to musical number, so there is not much in the way of theme to analyze. The most interesting moral issue in the film is the handling of the king’s oath. Human foibles are satirized when the king’s good intentions are utterly destroyed the first time he is mildly tested. Perhaps even more interesting, from a modern perspective, is the way the film honestly shows the political nature of public morality. When the king makes an oath, the entire country is bound by it whether they like it or not. Those of lower classes, whether they wanted the ban on love or not, are stuck with the penalties of violating the king’s edict. Yet when the king is tempted to violate his own edict, he first makes loopholes in the spirit of the law (he meets the women in the courtyard outside his gates instead of allowing them in) and ultimately merely changes his mind when his oath becomes inconvenient. It is sort of ironic then that the film is moved in setting to the eve of World War II. The fact that the king treats morality and oaths as political tools which the masses are bound to, but which he can break at will makes me wonder why we would be rooting for him in the war or why the princess should believe his oath of love. The portrayal of oaths and love as being transient expressions of an emotional state instead of outward affirmations of deep-seeded inner convictions both trivializes the film and undercuts any romantic tension. If the king doesn’t take his vow seriously, why should we? And if we don’t take his vow seriously than his inability to get together with the woman he professes to love makes him come across as dumb rather than conflicted.
The Final Word:
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is sort of the musical version of “Mission: Impossible 2.” Rather than tell a story it has a number of set pieces and is only really concerned with moving us from one stand-alone piece to the next. It looks good, but you never really care what is happening on screen. “Again you have heard that it was said to the people long ago: ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the Earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5: 33-37). My Grade: D