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[whitespace] Kenneth Branagh, Natascha McElhone
They Can't Top 'Top Hat': Kenneth Branagh and Natascha McElhone try to make like 1930s musical stars in 'Love's Labour's Lost.'

Labored 'Labour'

Kenneth Branagh works too hard to revive the musical on the back of Shakespeare's 'Love's Labour's Lost'

By Richard von Busack

THERE'S NO REASON why a good movie couldn't be made out of Love's Labour's Lost, even though it is bottom-of-the-barrel Shakespeare. It's a fusty play full of Latin tags and puns, but Love's Labour's Lost has its merry side, including a parody processional of the Nine Worthies, or heroes, of the ancient world. The amateur theatrical stars a skinny boy named Moth miscast as Hercules, a situation that occasions some Ogden Nash-style doggerel: "Great Hercules is presented by this imp/whose club killed Cerebus, that three-headed canus/and when he was a babe, a child, a shrimp/thus did he strangle serpents in his manus." An excerpt of this scene is pantomimed during one of the newsreel parodies that Branagh uses to hustle along the action in his modernized version. Aside from the classical japes, the play is about a King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and three courtiers (Branagh, Adrian Lester, Matthew Lillard) who stupidly promise to segregate themselves from women for three years in the interests of study. Naturally, an embassy of French women (including Alicia Silverstone and Natascha McElhone) arrive causing these scholars to lose their resolve.

Branagh has adapted the play in art-deco terms, as a musical-comedy plot. The story is cut to 95 minutes and diluted with plenty of coy frolicking--the kind of scenes Branagh never seems to get right. Even worse, the scenes provide cues for songs by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Classics all: "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Cheek to Cheek," "The Way You Look Tonight." The spectacle of the thin-voiced ensemble breaking into song makes the conceit of the musical comedy look embarrassingly artificial. Though Branagh wisely had the sets made to look like the MGM sound stages, the song cues don't seem organic to the material.

The cast isn't completely lost. Adrian Lester as the courtier Dumane has about 30 seconds of inspired dance that sets up some of the magic that Branagh must have envisioned. Timothy Spall, that splendid comedian last seen playing the Mikado in Topsy-Turvy, performs a literally ass-kicking burlesque of "I Get a Kick Out of You" as Shakespeare's dialect-joke Spaniard Don Armado. McElhone, though still an apprentice actor, is ravishing in the old 1940s studio style.

There is one moment that soars. Branagh's courtier Berowne has a speech in which he praises the beauty of the opposite sex not as a distraction but as inspiration. It's a noble argument against the dedicated celibates who cut themselves off from love in the idea that it will improve their art. This little speech rings like true Shakespearean gold. I hope I live long enough to see Branagh's Macbeth (next up, supposedly) and his Richard III and his Falstaff and his King Lear. But this movie is indeed the lost labor of the love of a Shakesperean and a musical comedy fan.

Love's Labour's Lost (PG; 95 min.), directed by Kenneth Branagh, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare, photographed by Alex Thomson and starring Branagh, Nathan Lane and Natascha McElhone, opens Friday at the Aquarius in Palo Alto and opens July 14 at the Camera theaters in San Jose.

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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