It’s time for part two of my ongoing love letter to the awesomeness that is Kenneth Branagh doing Shakespeare. And in a truly impressive feat, he’s managed to take a play I didn’t particularly like and turn it into a film that utterly charmed me. So take a peak at the trailer below and then we’ll dive into the review.
This film very firmly sets itself in 1939 right from the opening credits, which have a very old Hollywood feel. Following the credits, we are treated to a pre-WWII style news reel (narrated by Kenneth Branagh, of course) setting the stage for the film. This clip and the following news reels that are used as transitions between most of the acts of the play are not in Shakespearean dialogue, but rather use all the delightful cadences of the period.
The casting is really well-done. Kenneth Branagh is as a delightful as always playing Biron (are we at all surprised that the character I liked is being played by Kenneth Branagh? I though not) and the cast of couples are all sweet and charming. I was especially happy to see Alicia Silverstone and Emily Mortimer, both of whom I’ve always liked. Nathan Lane plays Costard and is just a pure joy to watch. Also the guy who played Peter Pettigrew is Armado and makes him delightfully ridiculous.
Now, in case you didn’t catch it from the trailer, this film is a musical. I admit, despite the fact that it was Kenneth Branagh who can do no wrong with Shakespeare, I was leery as I had a bad experience with a musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona. But I needn’t have worried. Somehow the film manages to merge Shakespearean dialogue with the songs of the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter (among others) seamlessly and with a bucket load of charm.
While having four couples is still quite a few people to keep track of, the costumes provide handy visual cues. Each girl wears a set colour (red, green, blue, and orange) and her corresponding guy also wears that colour. If only picking someone to date were so easy in real life.
The sets are all beautiful. I particularly wouldn’t mind living in the library set, which is just gorgeous. Locales that are supposedly outdoors are also definitely sets, but it helps lend that old Hollywood feel to the film. And homages to iconic films of the period peak through every once in a while. One dance number has a very Fred and Ginger feel to it, there’s a synchronized swimming musical number, and one of the final scenes is a major tip of the hat to Casablanca (right down to the panama hats on all the guys). In the old film tradition as well, there is a fair bit of slapstick moments which all made me giggle.
Several scenes from the original play are cut out, which I think went a long way towards making me like the film much more than the play. However, if you’re a purist, there are 20+ minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD and you can watch the guys in Russian disguises attempting to court the ladies. I much preferred the rather sexy dance number to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” used in its stead. Also, removing the rather long play within the play from the final act makes for a nice choice, especially as it’s replaced by Nathan Lane singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” which is just amazing.
The shift in tone in the final act is still very abrupt. Going from light and frothy comedy to the much darker pall that comes with the announcement of the king of France’s death is not an easy turn. However, it’s made less weird and in fact given a nice melancholy tone by having the four couples sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” as they part. The ending is also improved by another film reel of actual WWII footage intercut with shots of our 8 main characters being involved in various tasks (French underground, trenches, hospitals, etc). And we do get a silent happy ending, as the final scene is of our four couples celebrating together on VE day. Once again, Kenneth Branagh can do no wrong.
Next week we’ll be in the market for a pound of flesh with The Merchant of Venice. Until then, fair reader.