Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost is sort of an Elizabethan take on the difficulties of sublimation in the under thirty set. The young King of Navarre, along with three equally young lords, sign a pact to concentrate on their studies for three years – three years in which they will abstain from romance. ("The mind shall banquet, though the body pine.") Enter the Princess of France, on some pretense of state business, conveniently with three lovely ladies in attendance. Fortunate symmetry. The challenge to celibacy is cast.
That is really about all there is to the plot, aside from some minor subplotting for the purpose of bringing in additional comical characters. The Shakespeare iambic pentameter is there, of course, with its richness of poetry and knowing metaphor.
Kenneth Branagh, with first-rate productions of Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing to his credit, now chooses to set Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1939, a giddy moment about to be interrupted by World War II, and in the form of a 1930s musical comedy – an homage to some of the loveliest film moments ever, from what seems now a more innocent time. Branagh knows his cinematic history and the film overflows with references to folks like Astaire, Chevalier, and Busby Berkeley. There’s even an Esther Williams-type synchronized swimming extravaganza.
So here are the four young men breaking into "I’d Rather Charleston" in the library, the four couples fox trotting to "I Won’t Dance." There’sa tap number, an English music hall comic number, a torrid and sensual rhythm number to "Let’s Face the Music and Dance." There’s even a flying number for "Heaven, I’m in Heaven." It’s as if Branagh were cataloguing the conventions of the midcentury musicals.
He does it in the look of the film, too, with everything from very stage-y boats adorned with Japanese lanterns floating through a fog, to the quartet of ingenues in chiffon gowns of different pastel hues.
The casting focused on actors, rather than singer/dancer types, and they are all young and charming. There’s some fine comic relief from irresistible Nathan Lane, and a show stopper by the best trouper in the lot, Geraldine McEwan, whom Branagh casts against gender asHolofernia, the tutor. While the younger actors charm with their freshness and good looks, McEwan, a veteran of half a century on the stage and screen, offers wit that twinkles from inside. She’s a delight.
The film runs a shorthour and a half with all the musical numbers, so Shakespeare has been cut to the bone. Branagh sets a rapid-fire pace to the lines, making them often hard to follow. At times ("And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods/Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.") one might wish for more Shakespeare and less music. And the casting of actors who are neither dancers nor singers results in a somewhat low-keyed sameness to the cautious singing, and a simplicity to the choreography that will leave Astaire fans hungry for the real thing.
It’s all light and frothy and harmless, but, for some, cotton candy won’t substitute for the denser, more dangerous joys of chocolate fudge.