With a few notable exceptions, Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) has not fared well with academic critics or reviewers in the popular press. Some object to the film on aesthetic grounds. They decry Branagh’s decision to cast actors, not trained singers and dancers, in a production whose central conceit is the substitution of song and dance conventions from the heyday of the American movie musical for the rhetorical and poetic fireworks of its sixteenth-century British original. A film whose subtitle is ‘a romantic musical comedy’ must, they argue, be judged, at least in part, on the quality of its singing and dancing, both of which are amateurish. Others have argued that Branagh appropriates (or misappropriates) the conventions of the American film musical of the 1930s, 1940s and even 1950s indiscriminately despite the film’s 1939 setting, and, in any case, these conventions violate the Shakespearian source text. The Hollywood musical requires that the couples’ final union be prepared for in the song and dance sequences, but in Shakespeare’s radical comedy the women not only refuse to dance during the ill-fated masque of the Muscovites, but in the end postpone any possible union beyond the bounds of the play’s action.
Bypassing questions of performance and genre, cultural critics have focused on Branagh’s negotiation of his own, as well as Shakespeare’s, identity in this unusual hybrid film. Is Branagh the Irish outsider who seeks to appropriate the cultural capital of British high culture, ‘Shakespeare’, for a contemporary, especially American, popular audience? Or is he the Olivier rival who deliberately sets his film at the moment just before Henry V claimed film as a medium for Shakespeare? Or, recognizing the subordinate position of British high culture to American popular film, has Branagh adopted the Hollywood role assigned to the African-American actor – the minstrel who enacts a caricature of his/her culture in order to make a decent living?