Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#17: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

Loves Labours Lost poster 2

Oh fuck.

Fuck.

I mean: shit.

Don’t see this movie.

Don’t see this movie unless you are totally high.

Okay, let’s consider what Branagh tried to do with Love’s Labour’s Lost. This adaptation presented the Shakespeare comedy as a Hollywood musical from the late 1930s, in which Shakespeare’s language is interrupted by songs from the great American songbook (Gershwin, Porter, Kern, et cetera) and dancing appropriate to a bygone age. I don’t really object to the idea, as I love all of these things, and after all, this is a comedy.

But. I mean. Really.

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Part of the problem is that the film oozes not with nostalgia, but with especially fake nostalgia for a time none of these primary actors actually experienced. Part of what made Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly amazing is that they weren’t being nostalgic–they were modern for their own time. Gershwin was modern. Cole Porter was modern. If you are going to go retro, you need to inhabit the past as if it were modern, too. Branagh does this as an actor. Branagh fails to persuade anyone else to do this as a director.

The plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost is chiefly about four men who swear an oath to devote themselves to three years of a spartan, celibate, academic life.

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Part of the problem is that so many of the principle actors, well, suck. Matthew Lillard, who you may remember as Shaggy from the live action Scooby Doo movies, or as the sad assistant in 13 Ghosts, plays Longaville. Alessando Nivola, surely hired for how cool his name is, plays King Ferdinand of Navarre, not that you can tell from his performance. Adrian Lester blandly plays Dumaine. Contrasted with Branagh, they seem like malfunctioning animatronics, except when they can distract us with their barely-adequate choreographed dancing.

Part of the problem is that some of the actors REALLY suck.

Loves Labours Lost 6Alicia Silverstone portrays … the princess of France? She has a twinkle in her eye some naïve actors get (like Claire Danes) when they grab the opportunity to try Shakespeare. Look at how awesome I am, she seems to be implying, while being abysmally, quite shittingly, bad. This is the sort of acting one sees in sitcoms for children. She makes faces as articulate as the puppets from a Sid and Marty Krofft show

Richard Clifford, as the servant Boyard, is compelling, as is Richard Briers as the curate Sir Nathaniel. They aren’t onscreen long.

About the time you consider swallowing bleach, twenty-five minutes in, an even goofier subplot interrupts the story.

Loves Labours Lost 7Timothy Spall (who played Wormtail in the Harry Potter films) is actually quite good as Don Armado, whose accent strains comprehension.  (Shakespeare found foreign accents inexplicably funny.)

Loves Labours Lost 9Nathan Lane plays Costard, the clown, and musters the sort of low energy vaudeville that Billy Crystal brought to the gravedigger in Hamlet. It succeeds neither as lively vaudeville (again, when vaudeville was great it was modern), nor as Shakespearean tomfoolery.

And then, mother of shit, squeaky-voiced Alicia Silverstone fucking sings.

Loves Labours Lost 10This is the nadir of Branagh’s casting. The spread-out good performances drown in a sea of mealy-mouthed ham acting. Few of these actors are in the same movie, and those who are aren’t in a good one. In so eagerly chasing down Hollywood with Shakespeare, Branagh forgot to make it good.

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1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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