The Bard of Stratford's saga of the four students who swear off women only to have a ton of trouble keeping their promise is dense with dialogue. But Branagh axes about two thirds of that--and replaces it with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins and Jerome Kern. And it's wonderfully, wildly, winningly entertaining.
It is still set in Navarre, but now the time is the late 1930s, with Europe on the brink of war. Branagh sets the scene spectacularly with a faux newsreel and he uses the same device several times to keep the action moving. And that is how you can cover the whole of World War II in about three minutes.
The king (Alessandro Nivola) and his three pals (Branagh, Mathew Lillard and Adrian Lester) have no sooner signed the pledge than they break into song...and dance. And it all works. Branagh has a wonderful talent for matching songs to the text. He delivers a Shakespeare line about heaven to the object of his affection (Natascha McElhone) and then uses it to gently segue into "Cheek to Cheek."
The whole film is a salute to Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly, Busby Berkley and the other giants of the golden age of the movie musical. But there is even more--great comedy. Nathan Lane makes the clownish Costard into a genuine vaudevillian while the rotund Timothy Spall is a wonderfully pompous Don Armado. His version of "I Get a Kick Out Of You" is a showstopper.
The usually pedestrian play zips along and at 93 minutes is exactly the right length. Branagh covers all the plot points, uses heroically long takes for the dance numbers and oversees an enormously talented group of designers and costumers.
The movie also has one startling revelation. It is possible--verily, even agreeable--to do a tap-dance in time with iambic pentameter. Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Alicia Silverstone, Alessandro Nivola and Natascha McElhone. Directed and written by Kenneth Branagh. Produced by David Barron and Kenneth Branagh. A Miramax release. Comedy/musical. Rated PG for sensuality and a brief drug reference. Running time: 93 min