Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost is set in 1939 Europe, as the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his three comrades (Branagh, Matthew Lillard and Adrian Lester) pledge to give up women for three years while they emerse themselves in higher learning. But a visit from the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) and her attendants (Natascha McElhone, Emily Mortimer and Carmen Ejogo) upsets the men's plans for an ascetic existence.

In order to appear as though they are upholding their oath, the men use furtive means to court the women. Misunderstandings result before the men finally realize they have each broken the pact. Thus, they decide to pursue the women openly. Merriment abounds until the news arrives that the Princess' father has died and the women must return home. After France falls to the Nazis, the men join the Allied battle, help win the war, and reunite with the women on VE Day.

Kenneth Branagh was more influenced than we knew after appearing in Woody Allen's Celebrity. Not only did Branagh mimic Allen throughout that film, he apparently became enthralled with the idea of making an old-fashioned musical comedy featuring songs from the 1930s, something Allen had done in Everybody Says I Love You.

Of course, the big difference between Allen's film and Love's Labour's Lost is that Branagh uses a classic play on which to peg his songs and dances. (The play is truncated to fit the musical interludes, although, for some reason, the Bard does not even rate a screenplay credit.) Neither updating nor adding songs to Shakespeare constitute a new sort of thing, but it's still a major achievement to get a movie like this made today. It may even be harder to lovingly recreate such a genre than to savagely deconstruct it.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. The effort shows and the results are uneven. On the plus side, Branagh cleverly blunts the usual criticism of musical-comedy screenplays (that they're flimsy) by using the Bard's original poetry (although the plot isn't really any better than the old Astaire-Rogers originals). Branagh also uses great song standards by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter (only Gershwin's 'I'd Rather Charleston' is somewhat obscure). The widescreen production looks attractive, from the stylized sets to the cast of young leads (McElhone, Nivola, Lester and a surprisingly able Matthew Lillard are the best in the cast). And the 'color-blind' casting is commendable, despite a line that refers to the black Lester as 'pale.'

On the debit side, some of the performers lack the skills required for Shakespeare-or musical comedy, for that matter: Silverstone makes a particularly callow and petulant leading lady, and Nathan Lane and Timothy Spall contribute woeful low-comedy shtick (Lane even does a Se˜or Wences imitation out of nowhere). Branagh's cutting and dissolves mask some of the barely competent hoofing, but perhaps it would be suicidal for any performer to attempt Astaire-Rogers routines. Unlike the richly integrated Kiss Me Kate, Love's Labour's Lost even begs the question: Why have production numbers at all? Lester does well by his solo, 'I've Got a Crush on You,' but after a few songs, the film's biggest novelty wears thin. One ensemble, a 'hot,' Fosse-inspired version of 'Let's Face the Music and Dance' (featuring close-ups of skin-licking) spoils the engagingly chaste mood of the piece.

Yes, sadly, some of Love's Labour's Lost is laboured, indeed.

--Eric Monder