"Love's Labour's Lost" is a luscious labor of love. As if to prove the two extremes of his affection for the Bard, Kenneth Branagh has followed his four-hour, belt-and-braces version of "Hamlet" with one of the most audacious adaptations of Will's works, hacked down into a faux, old-style Hollywood tuner and given the handle "A Romantic Musical Comedy." Textual purists are likely to flutter their hands in horror, but anyone with an open mind and a hankering for the simple pleasures of Tinsletown's Golden Age will be rewarded with 90-odd minutes of often silly, frequently charming and always honest entertainment. Extremely smart marketing will be needed to overcome negative reviews by high-minded crix and to sell the concept as a fun, slightly campy entertainment to the younger crowd. Despite the movie's formidable intelligence and invention, modest returns look more likely in today's high-tech market.

“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is a luscious labor of love. As if to prove the two extremes of his affection for the Bard, Kenneth Branagh has followed his four-hour, belt-and-braces version of “Hamlet” with one of the most audacious adaptations of Will’s works, hacked down into a faux, old-style Hollywood tuner and given the handle “A Romantic Musical Comedy.” Textual purists are likely to flutter their hands in horror, but anyone with an open mind and a hankering for the simple pleasures of Tinsletown’s Golden Age will be rewarded with 90-odd minutes of often silly, frequently charming and always honest entertainment. Extremely smart marketing will be needed to overcome negative reviews by high-minded crix and to sell the concept as a fun, slightly campy entertainment to the younger crowd. Despite the movie’s formidable intelligence and invention, modest returns look more likely in today’s high-tech market.

Pic poses a massive marketing problem because there are simply no precedents in living memory for such a picture. Though adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays tumbled out during the ’90s, most were targeted at the youth market, either through modern settings or as star-driven vehicles. By re-casting “Lost” as a traditional Hollywood musical — a form that effectively died out over 30 years ago — Branagh has raised the stakes even higher, recalling (for those with long memories) Peter Bogdanovich’s 1975 B.O. flop “At Long Last Love.”

Branagh has done everything within his power to make things easy for a modern audience. The original text has been hacked back to almost nothing, and the plot massively simplified; the 10 musical numbers come fast and frequent; and the whole thing is packaged as upbeat, widescreen entertainment that doesn’t have an ounce of spare flesh in its trim 93 minutes.

The concept of melding the Hollywood musical (never noted for its historical accuracy or believable plots) with one of the Bard’s fluffiest and most verbally dexterous romps is a clever one. Where Branagh takes his biggest risk is in retaining rather than modernizing what’s left of the original dialogue, which still takes considerable concentration to follow, in between the highly hummable classics by Gershwin, Kern, Porter and Berlin.

Plot is pure frippery. The King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) has retired to the country with his three friends (Branagh, Matthew Lillard, Adrian Lester) to pursue the intellectual life away from the distractions of beautiful women. But their resolve is soon put to the test when the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her three companions (Natascha McElhone, Carmen Ejogo, Emily Mortimer) pay the King a visit.

Milling around on the outskirts of the plot are various eccentric characters, including a horny Spanish nobleman, Don Armado (Timothy Spall); Costard (Nathan Lane), a vaudeville clown; a police constable, Dull (Jimmy Yuill); country wench Jaquenetta (Stefania Rocca); a curate (Richard Briers); and pedantic teacher (Geraldine McEwan, in a part that was originally male).

Branagh sets the whole thing in September 1939, as war clouds gather over Europe and a privileged gentry enjoys an aimless existence. Interspersed through the action, and conveniently summarizing huge chunks of plot, are B&W, fake-scratchy newsreels, with a plummy English voice (Branagh again) putting a jocular gloss on outside events.

Nothing about the setting or characters makes the remotest sense in historical or cultural terms, and the pic (shot at Shepperton Studios in England) aims for a kind of fairy-tale mishmash that’s as artificial as an old RKO or MGM musical, or any of Josef von Sternberg’s extravagances. And even though the setting is the eve of WWII, the picture draws on and evokes the look of musicals from the early ’30s (Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire) to the late ’50s (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra), with even nonmusical refs (“Casablanca”) thrown in for good measure.

The surprise is that none of this matters. Most importantly, Branagh clearly knows his musicals and abides by the well-tested rules that made the classics classics. Sets are relatively few (a library, courtyard, riverside front, garden) and evoke similar ones from past tuners; most dance numbers employ long takes, with the full length of the dancer’s body visible; and segues from dialogue into songs are musically seamless and psychologically apt.

When les girls arrive at night by boat, in a magical sequence of color-coded dresses and Chinese lanterns, they play coy with the men via Kern’s “I Won’t Dance.” When Berowne (Branagh) lectures his pals on the marvels of love, he slips into Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek.” And when the four pairs are forced to part temporarily at the end, Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” provides the musical grouting. All numbers are kept short and brief, never taking over the picture.

The overall effect is knowing and joyful at the same time, aided by perfs from the whole cast that are free of pretentiousness and have a superior stock-company glee. Stuart Hopps’ choreography artfully disguises the fact that only Lester can really dance; and vocal weaknesses by some in the cast (Ejogo, Silverstone, Branagh) are fleeting. Apart from a couple of intentionally tricky sequences — a Busby Berkeley parody as the girls wake up to Berlin’s “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” and a steamy fantasy ballet to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” — editing by Neil and Dan Farrell is light of touch.

There’s scarcely a weak link in the mixed-accent, Anglo-American cast, with only Ejogo, Mortimer and Lillard failing to register strongly, more from shortage of screen time than lack of acting smarts. Branagh comes over as remarkably fresh and light, without hogging the spotlight; Nivola makes a handsome and commanding king, and, most surprising of all, Silverstone holds her own in a sporty perf as the young queen, delivering the goods in a major final speech opposite Branagh. Of the queen’s companions, McElhone is strongest, while Spall turns in a show-stopping comic term as a linguistically challenged Spanish lech and Lane provides vaudevillian bounce throughout.

Remaining tech credits are of a high order, with Patrick Doyle’s underscoring a major assist in mood and tone, especially in the final reels. In German-subtitled print caught, Alex Thomson’s Panavision widescreen lensing was, however, often less than ideally sharp outside closeups.

Love's Labour's Lost

Production

A Pathe Pictures (in U.K.)/Miramax (in U.S.) release of an Intermedia Films and Pathe Pictures presentation, in association with the Arts Council of England, Le Studio Canal Plus and Miramax Films, of a Shakespeare Film Co. production. (International sales: Intermedia, London.) Produced by David Barron, Kenneth Branagh. Executive producers, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Alexis Lloyd, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein. Directed, written by Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor London prints; Panavision widescreen), Alex Thomson; editors, Neil Farrell, Dan Farrell; music, Patrick Doyle; music producer, Maggie Rodford; production designer, Tim Harvey; supervising art director, Mark Raggett; costume designer, Anna Buruma; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Glossop; choreographer, Stuart Hopps; associate producers, Rick Schwartz, Andrea Calderwood; assistant directors, Simon Moseley, David Gilchrist; casting, Randi Hiller, Nina Gold. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (noncompeting), Feb. 14, 2000. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

King - Alessandro Nivola Princess - Alicia Silverstone Rosaline - Natascha McElhone Berowne - Kenneth Branagh Maria - Carmen Ejogo Longaville - Matthew Lillard Dumaine - Adrian Lester Katherine - Emily Mortimer Nathaniel - Richard Briers Holofernia - Geraldine McEwan Jaquenetta - Stefania Rocca Dull - Jimmy Yuill Costard - Nathan Lane Don Armado - Timothy Spall Moth - Anthony O'Donnell Mercade - Daniel Hill Boyet - Richard Clifford
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more