MGM // 1993 // 111 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 20th, 2011
"I would my horse had the speed of your tongue."
"Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever. One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never. Then sigh not so but let them go and be you blithe and bonny, converting all your sounds of woe into hey nonny nonny."
Our story concerns two couples facing some complicated challenges on their way to Happily Ever After. A soldier named Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard, House) is engaged to be married to the beautiful Hero (Kate Beckinsale, Underworld), but the scheming Don John (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) is doing everything in his power to ruin the relationship. Meanwhile, the vain Benedick (Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet) and the stubborn Beatrice (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility) continually allow their feelings for each other to be undercut by their own foolishly high standards of what they seek in a mate. And so, the stage is set for a series of merry romantic entanglements.
The works of William Shakespeare fared quite well on the big screen during the 1990s, and the films of Kenneth Branagh certainly played a very large part in that cinematic renaissance. After earning a great deal of critical acclaim for his impassioned take on Henry V, Branagh decided to try his hand at adapting of one Shakespeare's comedies. Much Ado About Nothing proved an even greater success than Henry V, a frothy delight that did a splendid job of reinvigorating the play's humor and romance. It's not Branagh's greatest Shakespeare flick (that would be his epic Hamlet), but it's arguably his most entertaining.
Even moreso than in Henry V, Branagh dispenses with the stuffy readings and cramped trappings that so often afflict Shakespearean films. By casting the events of the play against the wide, sprawling Tuscan countryside, Branagh opens the play up and allows it to breathe in a distinctively cinematic setting. Not once does Much Ado About Nothing feel awkwardly stagy in the way that these things so often do. In addition, Branagh consistently offsets the archaic dialogue by encouraging his cast to deliver fresh, naturalistic line readings. While there are a few instances in which this approach backfires (more on that in a bit), for the most part it allows the words to feel as if they are springing naturally from the characters. Too often, actors performing Shakespeare put so much weight in their delivery of the well-known and well-regarded dialogue that it ceases to be convincing.
It's rare that such a faithful Shakespeare adaptation has been so thoroughly unpretentious, as Branagh cheerfully includes plenty of slapstick comedy, visual gags and even a gleefully presented gallery of bare bottoms. There are numerous extended tracking shots which are quite impressive, but presented in such an organic manner that it never feels if the director is simply trying to show off (a sense that one often gets watching many of his of his other films). The film's huge musical finale is simply spectacular; a visual delight that concludes the movie on a tremendously memorable note.
Branagh and Thompson (who were married at the time) are terrific in the lead roles, generating an enjoyably prickly chemistry that's reminiscent of the work between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew. Both handle Shakespeare with complete ease and handle the tricky moments of comic timing splendidly. Denzel Washington was the biggest surprise for many viewers at the time of the film's release, as his easy-going magnetism and understated delivery makes him a sublime Don Pedro. The performance of Michael Keaton is probably the most hotly-debated, as the actor plays Dogberry with alarmingly broad strokes (read: farts) to very enjoyable effect. It's out-of-place with everything else in the movie, but delightful on its own terms.
Much Ado About Nothing arrives on Blu-ray sporting a disappointing 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, which seems to be only a mild improvement over the middling DVD release. There are quite a few flecks, scratches and specks present throughout the film, and darker scenes struggle from black crush and poor shading. The level of detail is decent and flesh tones are warm and natural, but the movie looks a good deal more beat-up than you would expect something from 1993 to look. The lossless audio is okay, but I'm surprised that we're only getting a 2.0 track. Dialogue is clear (though Washington's first scene has a strange echo effect) and the music sounds particularly good, but it's hardly an immersive mix. Extras are limited to the brief "Making Ado About Nothing" featurette and a trailer.
A few of Branagh's casting choices don't quite work. Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard are fine during their early scenes, but fail to pull off the dramatic weight their moments of melodrama require. They're not embarrassingly bad, but the two young actors are clearly out of their depth. At least they fare better than Keanu Reeves, who is almost hilariously miscast as the scowling villain of the piece. Reeves' surfer-dude delivery is incredibly ill-suited for the character, and his evil laugh remains one of the most unintentionally amusing things I've ever heard.
Minor casting issues aside, Much Ado About Nothing is a playful cinematic feast. The Blu-ray release doesn't offer much incentive for an upgrade, though.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13