Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Love’s Labour’s Lost

(UK/France/USA, 2000)

Shakespeare’s comedies are silly. All of them. Take the plot of this one: Four dudes decide to swear off women for three years and devote themselves to the insane pleasures of study. Yeah, right, and you sort of know that one ain’t gonna last beyond Act Two. The delights here, as always in these plays, is the wit and brilliance of the language. And in the case of LLL, so I am informed, in the puns, wordplay, literary allusions and so forth that I’m sure delighted sophisticates in 1597 but are now accessible only to scholars. So LLL hasn’t been one of the more performed of the Bard’s works.

Musicals are silly. All of them, from Oklahoma! to No, No, Nanette, to Sweeney Todd. I mean, when is the last time you heard a cowboy or a serial killer burst into song to express his feelings? Or seen a New York street gang do a spontaneous jazz dance to the music of Leonard Bernstein? We enjoy musicals (or I do, I know some people can’t get behind them at all) because we sometimes feel as if we could burst into song and dance down the street … and wouldn’t it be a grand world if we could?

So, silly musical, and silly Shakespeare. A match made in heaven, right? Well, it must have seemed that way to Kenneth Branagh and the (as usual) awesomely talented cast of this movie … but it really isn’t. The critics were not kind. To fit this all into 90 minutes, including a dozen song-and-dance numbers, Branagh had to take even more than the usual liberties in cutting the text. He slashed ruthlessly. He set the play in 1939, and added newsreel summaries and narration. In short, he did just about everything he could have done to annoy lovers of Shakespeare, a category that emphatically includes myself.

So I hated it, right? Wrong. I loved it. I had to become something of a split personality to do that, but I was happy to do so. What I did was, I watched two movies. One was a (thankfully) abbreviated version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, minus most of the stuff I wouldn’t have gotten without extensive footnotes anyway … and believe me, it is heavy going, and I speak as one who’s seen the original twice, and didn’t understand most of it even the second time through. What Branagh kept was the stuff that the lover-but-not-student of the Bard could appreciate, and done it wonderfully.

The second movie was nothing but a delightful lark, a series of set pieces choreographed beautifully to the songs of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and others of that era that had me smiling from beginning to end. The design of this film is to die for. I just ate up the colors and the lighting. This is probably the only way to like this crazy film, but if you can manage it, it will reward you.

(ANOTHER THOUGHT, THE NEXT DAY) You know what I think this movie is like? It’s like The Princess Bride. The book, more than the movie. Remember, how William Goldman discovered that his favorite childhood book, which was read to him, was actually a rather turgid, badly-paced political allegory … and yet it had these wonderful moments of high adventure and just really, really neat stuff in it? So he “edited” a good parts version, that left out all the court intrigue and political satire and obscure character assassination of people long dead, and kept only the fun passages. He even made notes of where he’d cut, with his own comments in red. These are like the musical numbers and the newsreel dialogue in Love’s Labour’s Lost. You keep the plot alive, but skip gaily over the stuff most people aren’t going to understand or enjoy.

I remember vividly in the 7th grade, Mrs. Kimbrough’s English class. For at least a week (it seemed a lot longer) we were forced to listen to Julius Caesar on long-playing records. Boring? Thought I was gonna die! For one thing, I think the performers were pretty awful. They did not speak the speech as Hamlet pronounced it to them, trippingly on the tongue, they mouthed it, as if the town crier spoke the lines. I remember the cat playing Julius made “Et tu, Brute!” into about nineteen syllables, with a lot of groaning. Got a big laugh in a class that was desperate for one. And that was it for me and Shakespeare, and I’d bet for everyone in that class, for many years (for many of them, forever), until I encountered performances, on film (and every performance on film, and the huge majority on the stage, is shortened in one way or another except, ironically, Branagh’s Hamlet), with actors who could make the lines, the glorious words, come alive.

Why did we subject students to this? Junior high kids are not ready for a gigantic lump of unfamiliar words like Julius Caesar or King Lear. (On the other hand, I get the feeling that these days most schools don’t subject their students to Shakespeare—or anything very challenging in the way of literature—at all.) But there are “good parts” versions of many of the plays. Kids went to see Romeo and Juliet when Franco Zeffirelli filmed it in old Verona. Hell, it had sword fighting in it! They went to see Romeo + Juliet when Baz Luhrmann updated it with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes … and of course, a lot of purists hated it.