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Contemporary stage and film directors tend to treat classic plays the way families deal with black sheep: They do everything in their power to distract us from what they regard as burdens or embarrassments. In the Source Theatre’s current all-male production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s comedy is turned inside out (the sly gay subtext inflated to become the play’s theme), updated and localized to accommodate clanging references to Janet Reno and Dupont Circle, and outfitted with nudity, simulated sex, dildoes, and handcuffs. Unless you were already familiar with Wilde’s text or had seen a traditional production of it, you’d be astonished to learn that Earnest is widely regarded as the wittiest, most subversive, and most elegantly structured drawing-room comedy that English drama has yet yielded.

In a similar manner, Kenneth Branagh has wreaked havoc on Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, time-shifting it to the dawn of World War II and transforming it into a musical comedy featuring vintage songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin. Although we have survived worse ideas—bubble-gum ice cream, the Vietnam War, and Rosie O’Donnell’s vocal CD, to name just three—this one is pretty dire. Branagh must have assumed that audiences who would protest tampering with Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other beloved Shakespearean comedies might be willing to accept a radical transformation of this seldom-performed early play. He’d have fared better had he been faithful to the text.

As Mary McCarthy observed in 1954,

Why Love’s Labour’s Lost is so rarely done is a mystery, since it is both extremely actable and full of exquisite poetry; but perhaps, on the whole, it is a good thing that some of Shakespeare’s plays should come to the audience fresh, with the dew still on them….Love’s Labour’s Lost has a special, spring-like quality that sets it off from the other so-called neglected plays: Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Comedy of Errors, to mention only the comedies. Whether or not it was Shakespeare’s first play or second or fourth (there is a dispute about the dating), it has something about it that makes one want to imagine it as the first, something pristine and dazzlingly new, like the first day of Creation.

To make room for 10 musical numbers, Branagh jettisoned 75 percent of the text, leaving only a skeletal plot and stick-figure characters. In 1939, the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his friends (Branagh, Matthew Lillard, and Adrian Lester) vow to give up women for three years in order to devote their energies to the study of philosophy. No sooner do they make this pledge than the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her attendants (Natascha McElhone, Emily Mortimer, and Carmen Ejogo) arrive on a diplomatic mission. Irresistibly drawn to these lively, seductive visitors, each of the men betrays his pact while trying to conceal his defection from his peers. In a counterpoint low-comedy subplot, two clownish characters, nobleman Don Armado (Timothy Spall) and entertainer Costard (Nathan Lane), vie for the affection of a saucy commoner, Jaquenetta (Stefania Rocca). Just as the characters renounce abstract thought in favor of love, word arrives of the death of the Princess’s father. She and her retinue return to France, which soon falls to the Nazis. In a postwar epilogue, the lovers are reunited.

Despite massive evidence that he is not a gifted actor or director, Branagh has somehow managed to sustain a reputation as such. No matter that he hammed his way through his interminable 1996 screen version of Hamlet, proved to be the most charmless of romantic leading men in The Theory of Flight, and set audiences cringing with his Woody Allen impersonation in Celebrity. No matter that, as a director, he’s demonstrated his incompetence in a variety of genres: film noir (Dead Again), social comedy (Peter’s Friends), and horror (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). But he’s unlikely to escape brickbats for Love’s Labour’s Lost, which all too nakedly reveals the hubris he shares with Shakespeare’s tragic heroes.

Musicals are the most exacting of screen genres, requiring a filmmaker capable of integrating music, movement, comedy, and drama. Branagh was so immodestly confident of his directorial skills that he believed he could, in just three weeks of rehearsals, transform a company almost entirely composed of nonsingers and nondancers into musical-comedy performers. Instead of commissioning new material tailored to his cast members’ inexperience, he recklessly assigned them songs that, with only two exceptions, are associated with Fred Astaire, the greatest song-and-dance man who ever lived. Branagh’s players warble passably and hoof gamely—but with barely a trace of individuality, let alone poetry or magic. (The sole exception is Lester, who has starred in Kiss of the Spider Woman and several Sondheim musicals on the London stage. Every time this stylish, nimble dancer cuts loose, he makes his colleagues look lead-footed—which Branagh should have considered before hiring him.) As each musical number begins, we can’t help recalling how sublimely Astaire performed it, or, in the case of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” how brassily Ethel Merman tore into that self-congratulatory showbiz anthem.

Branagh’s musical sequences contain homages to Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, and other filmmakers without contributing anything fresh to the cinematic vocabulary of presenting song and dance. The dialogue scenes amount to little more than stage waits between numbers, with some of the American actors—notably toothy Lillard and hapless Silverstone—emoting like high school thespians. As is his custom, alleged funnyman Lane mugs and flaps his eyebrows. The British performers express what’s left of Shakespeare’s poetry more confidently but, stymied by the bare-bones script, have so little time to establish their characters that Branagh resorts to color-coding their costumes so that viewers can tell them apart.

No doubt Love’s Labour’s Lost will be consigned to the cinematic purgatory inhabited by Peter Bogdanovich’s dismal At Long Last Love, but its tastelessness makes it even harder to endure than that musical mudpie. As a linking device, Branagh interjects mock newsreels, a la Citizen Kane, charting the progress of Nazi troops across Europe. The film concludes with extensive faux-documentary footage featuring the cast in staged scenes depicting the occupation of France and the allied victory while an ensemble croons “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” on the soundtrack. One can’t help recalling The Producers’ “Springtime for Hitler” number. The difference, of course, is that Mel Brooks intentionally concocted a comedic song-and-dance outrage, whereas Branagh labors under the delusion that he’s creating a sophisticated, touching work of art. CP