Onstage, the lesser-known play has been adapted to all sorts of settings, from France's belle epoque before World War I to a melancholic realm of Chekhov, but Branagh places his kingdom of Navarre squarely at Cambridge University, circa 1939. The king (Alessandro Nivola) and his three closest friends -- Berowne (Kenneth Branagh), Longaville (Matthew Lillard) and Dumaine (Adrian Lester) -- have joined together in a pact, devoting themselves to three full years of intense scholarship, that "the mind shall banquet, though the body pine." The conditions: No women, only three hours of sleep per night, one meal per day, one day of fasting and, again, no women, upon pain of public humiliation. Of course, no sooner have the strapping dandies signed their oath than Navarre is visited by the princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her three coquettish attendants, Katherine (Emily Mortimer), Maria (Carmen Ejogo) and Rosaline (Natascha McElhone). The boys' mission is to keep their noses in their books and the girls outside the courtly gates. The girls' mission, essentially, is to frolic and screw with the boys' heads. The glib and sensuous debates of the two camps (the girls literally sleep under canvas) provide the story's drive.
Although the faux-classic staging rarely matches the masterful musicals of old Hollywood, Branagh can't be faulted for a lack of energy, as actor or director. His Navarre/Cambridge (designed by Tim Harvey) feels at once ethereal and solid, a perfect representation of higher learning as a magic castle. Upon these stages, the king and his mates dance and sing and wax loquacious for all they're worth. Sometimes the result is stilted (there's no avoiding the initial belly laugh when they first burst into Gershwin's "I'd Rather Charleston"), but, undeniably, it takes guts to play these scenes so jubilantly. The girls fare just as well, with their romp to Berlin's "No Strings (Fancy Free)" providing an ideal counterbalance to the swaggering scholars. When the two groups come together to share a little heat in Berlin's jaunty "Let's Face the Music and Dance," it's clear that, regardless of one's tastes, this is an enthusiastic work of art.
The cast is rounded out by some excellent players, whose gifts are alternately amplified and sullied, often within the same scene. As the clown Costard and as visiting Spanish ... er ... dignitary Don Adriano de Armado, respectively, Nathan Lane (Mouse Hunt) and Timothy Spall (Branagh's Hamlet) are required to play at full energy while delivering genuinely amusing dialogue while also making annoying slapstick asses of themselves. It gets sticky (and we could all do without the groin kicks). Less burdened are Richard Briers (from the British series The Good Life) as curate Nathaniel and Geraldine McEwan (Branagh's Henry V) as the king's own tutor (male in the original play), whose subtle affections gently offset the bewilderment of the boys and the taunting of the girls. Watching them sway about a Victorian lawn with the plucky country lass Jacquanetta (Italian actress Stefania Rocca) is pretty much the opposite of a train wreck.
The leads mostly carry off their roles -- rather than inhabiting them -- in various positions of awkward and hopeful piggyback. Of course, Silverstone is going to get the most flak, with her gooey smile and SoCal intonation all but obscuring the language popping from her lips ("I will be welcome then," she chirps. "Conduct me thither!"), but she's inherited Goldie Hawn's glee, regardless of what she's saying. Besides, she's the draw for the mall multiplex. As the king, Nivola plays well against her, bearing staunchness in his intentions while breaking his vows with a fluttering heart every step of the way. Mortimer fills her Katherine with a quiet, almost shy grace that's genuinely magnetic, and pairing her with Lester (who deserves more screen time for dancing) as Dumaine was wise casting. As would-be lovers Longaville and Maria, Lillard and Ejogo play slimmer roles but make up for them -- as does McElhone as Berowne's love, Rosaline -- with unbridled enthusiasm.
Even though the segues between Shakespeare and the songs push the limit of human decency, and the sound mix is actually too clean (falling chairs make no sound; a little analog hiss might have better grounded the singing), one has to give Branagh an A for effort. (Really, who the hell else would've hatched a scheme this inventive? Was it a bet?) As Berowne, he looks a little more mature than his cohorts in Navarre (not unlike Emma Thompson's narrowly squeaking in under the rope for Sense and Sensibility), but he's definitely got the gifts to outshine them all. His delivery here -- an upper-class speak-yodel not far removed from, say, a heavily caffeinated John Cleese -- is a constant delight to the ear, as if Shakespeare wrote the lines just for him, or at least gave his consent that they be chopped up and rearranged at Branagh's whim. It's easy to believe him in this role, torn between intellectual and fleshly passions, imploring, "When shall you hear that I will praise a hand, a foot, a face, an eye, a gait, a state, a brow, a breast, a waist, a leg, a limb ..." (Um, invite her up to the library, dude?)
The movie suffers a bit from choppy, impatient editing (note the girls' water-ballet sequence and the boys' woefully truncated midair dance), and some of the set pieces (mostly heaped upon poor Spall) are bright, whimsical and thuddingly stupid. It's a toss-up whether or not audiences will be amused by the crafty newsreel sequences that serve as expository joints as well as warning of the approaching horrors of war. Taken as a whole, the movie seems to be searching for a harmony it never really achieves. Then again, by shifting this dusty classic to a more modern context, perhaps Branagh is indeed helping audiences, as he's stated, "to view these films as entertainment and not intelligence tests." If that's the case, then OK -- perhaps it is just a little bit wonderful.
Opens Aug. 25 at the Chase Park Plaza.