Branagh has, in recent years, made a practice of mounting lavish productions of Shakespeare's works on film - and in an effort to make the final product more palatable to Americans audiences, he offers several pivotal roles in each production to a handful of deserving actors from the US. Like greedy children offered the contents of a candy store, they devour this rare opportunity, for as we all know, there's nothing like Shakespeare to validate one's career as an actor. Some actors have managed extremely well - Denzel Washington in Much Ado About Nothing, for example, and I suppose Billy Crystal as the gravedigger in Hamlet wasn't too bad - but as production follows production, his efforts to choose actors in hopes of appealing to the broadest common denominator become more obvious and ill-advised. Alicia Silverstone as The Princess of France, Matt Lillard as Longueville, Nathan Lane as Costard - teenage boys and girls, horror film fans, Disney fans! You can almost see Branagh crossing focus groups off a list.
And they aren't bad, precisely. There's a certain awkwardness in their delivery, but thanks to Branagh's lavish cuts, they never speak for long, except for one well-done section, which I will return to later. Their main crime is that of obviousness. To enjoy Shakespeare, it's almost better to be ignorant of the identity of the actors. Am I the only one who thought Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love was simply playing herself with a British accent? Gwyneth modelling a series of lovely Renaissance dresses, pretending to be an English lady? She was too big to be believable, and not good enough as an actress to transcend her own celebrity and hype.
But I digress. The point is that Alicia Silverstone and Matt Lillard are too tainted with celebrity and modernity to be believable in such a piece. Nathan Lane is actually pretty good. So the American actors go through their parts at top speed (have you noticed that Branagh adores having actors arrive in a scene at a run, possibly dressing or accessorizing as they dash in, all breathless... it gives such a sense of realism to the scene, don't you think? Ay, the first time I saw it. After about 4 productions the trick becomes obvious, especially when he employs it several times in the same film.) As I was saying before I was distracted, they "go through their parts at top speed," hoping their deficiencies in presentation will not be as evident if they whizz by us. Perhaps this is why the film clocked in at 90+ minutes.
We all raise a collective eyebrow here. Would someone please explain to me how, on God's green earth, could a Shakespeare play be reduced to an hour and a half and still be called Shakespeare? The cuts are so numerous, so Jack-the-Ripper-esque in their totality - the internal organs of the poor victim lie beside the gutted body. Um, that's a bit gross. Ok, it's like a pretty new dollhouse - beautifully detailed, nicely furnished - but there's no-one in it. Nary a doll. Nah, I like my Jack the Ripper analogy better.
Where was I? Oh, the play's been cut. A lot. And, to complete the confusion, many popular songs of the Gershwins and Cole Porter have been slotted in. The actors sing and dance. Adequately. But, why oh why? It's as though Branagh has lost all faith in Shakespeare; and as the self proclaimed producer of Shakespeare on film for our generation, he's determined to get a piece that no-one else would do (there's a reason why I've never even had the opportunity to see a production of it) and to keep up the current mode of modern settings such as Ian McKellan's Richard III, Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet (emphasize the Plus, it's what makes it cool!) and Ethan Hawke's Hamlet (which doesn't even deserve to be mentioned, it's so hideous) he's grabbed desperately at the idea of turning Love's Labor's Lost into a musical set in an ersatz WWII era Europe a la Hollywood. I must credit Branagh on his efforts to make the characters clear and the plot (such as it is) discernable. The old-fashioned Movietone newsreels he created have a charming air of authenticity about them, and as the newsreels are done entirely in modern English, anyone who might have gotten lost in what remains of Shakespeare's language is set straight. Also, Branagh has kindly color-coordinated the 4 couples in red, orange, green and blue (as director/producer/actor, he chose the blue for himself and Natasha McElhone; it matches his eyes), just in case anyone was getting lost.
As I mentioned earlier, they sing and dance adequately, But that's not good enough. Yes, actors can be coached and skillfully choreographed to look good in a dance number, and I don't doubt some of them have had some dance training in their past. But dance professionals have a stillness, a nuance that amateurs can't duplicate - there's a shakiness to amateur dance. It reminds me of Circus of the Stars - yes that's Bernie Koppels from The Love Boat up there on that trapeze - but you know he just wasn't meant to be there. And most of these actors just can't pull off song and dance with the kind of skill that makes you want to watch them. Any voice can be processed in a studio to be on pitch and sound good, so there's no point belaboring that.
I think I'm almost done, so I'll return to the good part I mentioned before. After a highly confusing mishmash of songs, dance, feeble comedy and occasional speeches which make no real impression on the audience, circumstances force the 4 couples apart. In an almost miraculously intact series of farewells, all of these actors get a few moments to show that they do understand the language, and that they are credible actors. I was actually moved by the scenes between Alessandro Nivola as the King of Navarre and Silverstone as the Princess of France; likewise the scene between Branagh and McElhone. It was almost infuriating that these actors were denied the opportunity to really shine in a Shakespeare production, and instead were only offered this slipshod mess of a piece.