Love’s Labour’s Lost is not only William Shakespeare’s best comedy, it’s also the play of his with the most moving ending.
Hot take, I know. But it’s one I’ll stand by having seen a handful of stage and shot-from-the-stage versions, along with a TV version, Kenneth Branagh’s 2000 film and a new independent flick that I’ll get to in a moment.
If you are familiar with the piece, it may only be because of Branagh’s much-maligned musicalized film adaptation from 2000 (and I’ll defend that another time). The Bard play is not nearly as often performed as the big four — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night and the highly problematic The Taming of the Shrew — and seems to have a lower profile then the equally problematic but decidedly lesser Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In it, four dudes make a vow to study, fast and give up the company of women for a couple of years. We know the plan is destined for failure even before the arrival of a diplomatic mission including a quartet of women who have a history with these boys. The smitten guys attempt to woo while hiding their romantic efforts from their brethren. Once their feelings become public, they get so wrapped up in the act of wooing that they are tricked by the oh-so-smart women into making moves on the wrong partners.
And then there’s that ending.
A few years back, I got wind that there was another adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost being made — an updated one set in a boarding school. The trailer looked promising. Curious, I reached out to the filmmakers only to find that the flick had yet to be completed.
Recently, I found out that the film was, in fact, quietly released after some festival action. It’s now streaming on Amazon Prime and Google Play.
Unlike 10 Things I Hate About You, O or other let’s-bring-Shakespeare-to-now films, the language in this Love’s Labour’s Lost primarily comes from Shakespeare, with much cut of course. And some word swaps for clarity.
That language is largely well-played, especially by the core women. Rachel Ravel is a sturdy Princess, Hollowell Hooke and Cate Gillham have less to do but register well as Katherine and Maria, and Riley Rudy is particularly playful as Rosaline.
And the ages are right. One of the legitimate criticisms against Branagh’s LLL is that all of the characters seem, at minimum, into their 30s. LLL, though, is centered on youth. It’s about naively thinking you can make decisions about love entirely with the intellect. It’s about the joy on the surface of love and how that’s easily mistaken for the depth of love.
What doesn’t translate in this contemporary version is the power. There are real stakes in the play when the King of Navare is visited by the Princess of France. There’s significantly less when some private-school boys are visited by some private-school girls. The “King” in the film doesn’t really have authority over the school, which causes some dramaturgical confusion. Rather than keep their distance, as per the instigating vow, the women attend classes with the guys. Instead of passing along a note via a comic courier, for instance, why doesn’t the pining Berowne (Max Green) just drop Rosaline his love letter on her neighboring desk?
The film is also hurt by an Armado who is more of a Malvolio. Yes, I realize that sentence just scared away a good percentage of readers who made it this far. But if you are still with me, let me explain.
Don Armado is the counterweight to the quartet of boys. Traditionally a foreigner with a limited — and comical — grasp of English, he nonetheless speaks from his heart. He’s often played as a buffoon but, ultimately, we — and the boys — have to be able to see that this knucklehead has something that they don’t. His passion is real and honest. If you want to see the part gloriously played, check out the Globe Theatre’s streaming version from 2010 with Paul Ready in the role.
What Armado isn’t is malicious. He isn’t predatory. And he’s not Malvolio from Twelfth Night. Here, he’s a teacher hot for a nurse and clueless to the romantic interests of a student, adapted from the play’s character Moth. He’s smarmy and unpleasant and, well, an LLL without an Armado to love is a lesser LLL.
On stage, it’s easier to give credit for coming close when it comes to the mistaken identities that permeate Shakespeare comedies; in this case, a key scene involves the women swapping trinkets sent by their wooers. The goal is to show that the men are connecting to the surface and not the reality. The boys fall for it, inadvertently speaking sweet nothings to the disguised wrong gals. In a film set in a realistic world, it’s difficult to accept since it’s so clear by voice and shape which woman is which and the guys just seem willfully dumb. But the scene — set here at a party in the woods — still works better than the equivalent one botched by Branagh. Unlike many teen films, this one gets the awkwardness of the reconnect after a long-ago hook-up. It seems to have a grasp on the mixture of romance and horniness that propels young relationships.
And, in spite of its flaws, it makes the ending work. Given the likelihood that you haven’t encountered LLL, I won’t spoil it. Don’t expect fireworks. Just a final montage that justified, for me, the filmmakers’ labours.