STAGE TO SCREEN: Labours Lost & Beckett Bundled

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Labours Lost & Beckett Bundled Has Kenneth Branagh lost it?

Has Kenneth Branagh lost it?

Branagh’s career has been dipping precipitously over the last few years, but at least his Shakespeare was always impeccable. With the recent glut of Shakespeare films coming out -- at least one or two a year -- it’s easy to forget how daring the idea of a bloody, muddy “Henry V” seemed in 1989, when Branagh directed and starred in the film before he was 30. After that came a delightful “Much Ado About Nothing” and a sturdy if slightly draggy “Hamlet.” (I do, however, have fond memories of Liev Schreiber at a Public Theater talkback steering inner-city kids toward the Mel Gibson version. “It’s shorter and it’s better,” he said.)

So how do you explain the disastrous hodgepodge of fart jokes, tone-deaf warblings and self-indulgences currently on display in Branagh's “Love’s Labour’s Lost”? I tend not to review movies in this column -- there’s too much interesting information out there, and you guys always have enough plenty of opinions. But I feel the need to speak out here.

The play itself is charming but slight, so the idea of goosing it with music makes perfect sense. But are these actors committed to the concept or smirking at it? Are the musical numbers intentionally schlocky? Timothy Spall, made up even more strangely than he was in “Topsy-Turvy,” mugs his way through an amazingly bad “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and your heart goes out to the performers during the faux-Fosse treatment of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” And why does the camera cut back to Berowne constantly, drawing further attention to the fact that he looks at least 10 years older than his three “peers”? Actually, that question is easy: Because Branagh is playing Berowne. It’s a lot easier to get tons of camera time when you’re the director.

With the exception of a charming “The Way You Look Tonight” from Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwen (The Chairs), the musical sequences are totally predictable, even when they appear designed to surprise. The choreography is busy, and for all the kitschy effects (water ballets, people flying through the air), nobody shows much enthusiasm for the form. Emily Mortimer -- she plays one of Alicia Silverstone’s ladies-in-waiting -- says she didn’t have to sing during her audition for the movie, which is awfully telling. “Everyone Says I Love You” took the novelty out of watching non-singers belt out Jazz Age standards; now it just seems a little silly. Nathan Lane resorts to all the same clown gags you’ve seen a dozen times before, and Silverstone delivers most of her lines in a chirpy cadence straight out of “Clueless.” While it’s sometimes amusing to see Matthew Lillard’s beanpole physique executing various dance combinations, the male standout is Adrian Lester. He has probably the fewest lines of the four male leads, but his one main musical solo, in “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” blows everyone else off the stage. Except for Lane and Natasha McElhone, everyone else is mediocre vocally.

By the way, it should be said that Branagh still speaks Shakespeare beautifully. A few of his monologues achieve the level of intimacy and intelligence that made his Benedick and his Henry V so captivating. He has said his next screen Shakespeare will be Macbeth -- and that he will not direct. That’s welcome news: Oliver Parker got a great Iago out of Branagh in “Othello,” and I’m sure Sam Mendes or Julie Taymor could do terrific things with “Macbeth.” But Kenneth Branagh will have trouble putting this lost Labour behind him. If it were just a tiny bit worse, it might have a rich future as a midnight cult classic. As it is, it’s just a sad, misbegotten mess.

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I had been putting off writing about the Beckett Film Project until it was closer to fruition, but last Sunday’s big New York Times article has forced my hand a bit. As you may have seen, an impressive batch of directors and actors are teaming up to produce every single Samuel Beckett play for the screen. Ten pieces are already done; the idea is to have all 19 complete by year’s end and air them on PBS’ new “Stage on Screen” series next season.

As the Lincoln Center Festival illustrated a few years ago, watching multiple Beckett plays in rapid succession can be extremely illuminating. The short plays become deeper, and the ideas in the longer plays become less murky. Even if the overall quality is hit-or-miss (as it invariably is with a project of this size), this promises to be one of the truly great attempts to put a master writer’s body of work on film. You can find a much more thorough description in the Times article, but here’s a brief sampling:

• Julianne Moore’s mouth is featured in extreme close-up in the 13-minute “Not I,” directed by Neil Jordan. Incidentally, Billie Whitelaw’s performance of the same piece stands out as one of the more chilling films I’ve ever seen.

• John Hurt’s acclaimed performance in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which is supposedly headed to New York, has been filmed by Atom Egoyan, who replaced John Boorman.

David Mamet directs Harold Pinter and Sir John Gielgud (in his final role) in “Catastrophe.” Ironically, I was tangentially involved a few years ago in a production that attempted to show the creative lineage from Beckett through Pinter to Mamet. We were right!

• Anthony Minghella is directing Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson in “Play.” (That’s the Beckett play we put on.)

• The two big guns, “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame,” are a bit less glittery, although stage fans will approve of the “Endgame” director, Conor McPherson (best known for writing The Weir), and one of its costars, Michael Gambon. Walter Asmus, who worked alongside with Beckett in directing Godot for the Lincoln Center Festival, performs similar duties here; Johnny Murphy and Barry McGovern star.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Speaking of PBS productions, watch for "Play On!" on your local station. (It's scheduled to air June 21 on New York's Channel 13.) This Twelfth Night update featuring an all-Duke Ellington score wasn't terribly popular in its 1997 Broadway run, but the music is certainly worth hearing. This "Great Performances" broadcast has all but two songs from the original score... Nothing much else happening here, although Susan Stroman will be glad to hear that “The Producers” ranked No. 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest American movies. (My personal favorite, “Dr. Strangelove,” came in at No. 3, right behind two other hilarious films -- “Some Like It Hot” and “Tootsie.” … Stage faces surfacing in the next few weeks are sparse, although the two big Fourth of July pictures, “The Patriot” and “The Perfect Storm,” feature Rene Auberjonois and John C. Reilly, respectively. Jane Horrocks and Imelda Staunton are among the voices featured in “Chicken Run” (June 23), and Kenneth Lonergan is billed as one of the screenwriters of “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” (June 30), directed by Des McAnuff. Other than that, it’s pretty quiet.

My Favorite Thought: The topic of the “Phantom” movie brings out writers in droves. Some of you would rather see it on video, some of you want it animated, and some of you don’t care as long as Michael Crawford stars. But here’s a portion of one letter, from “A Disgusted Phantom Phan,” that questions the entire project:

“I think the majority of Phantom fans believe that a movie should NOT be made at this point, due to all the lies and betrayals over the years to both fans and performers by ALW.

“Lord Lloydie stated back in 1990, on the Johnny Carson show, that Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford would indeed reprise their roles of the Phantom and Christine. And every year thereafter, we have heard a movie would be made, but to no avail.

“ALW has no concept of how marketing could benefit him. He always makes announcements to the media before he has any solid plans for his shows. (Notice, Disney waits until their shows are ready to be released, before announcements are made in the media.) …

“I don't care if he spends $100 million on this movie -- it will be as well received or worse as ‘Evita.’ Antonio Banderas is a total embarrassment as a singer, and I really felt very sorry for Sarah Brightman, doing her best to ‘hold up the performance’ at ALW's birthday celebration two years ago.

"ALW also has difficulty with loyalty to the many wonderful performers who have made his music come alive. Granted, he's a wonderful composer, but he also needs wonderful singers and performers to interpret and perform his works. That's where his loyalty falls short. It looks like Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford must now go to the end of the line along with Faye Dunaway, Patti Lupone and numerous others that ALW has seen fit to ‘burn bridges’ with. …

“If ALW goes ahead with this current ‘soup du jour’ of an idea, then I believe it will be time to fold the RUG.”

Your Thoughts: Did “Love’s Labour’s Lost” leave such a bad taste in your mouths as well, or is it just me? And is anyone else as excited about the Beckett project?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.