"Friendship is constant in all other things save in the office and affairs of love."—Count Claudio of Florence
Shakespeare's foremost latter-day cinematic interpreter, Kenneth Branagh, followed the fiercer stuff of his 1989 classic Henry V with this kinder, gentler, but no less effective production of a Stratfordian comedy. Branagh's sprightly take on Much Ado About Nothing features an all-star cast, including such seemingly unlikely names (for Shakespeare, anyway) as Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Michael Keaton.
Facts of the Case
When Don Pedro of Aragon (Denzel Washington, Training Day, John Q) returns with his men from the battlefield, love abounds in the air in the Sicilian hamlet of Messina. Outwardly, it's love between Don Pedro's right-hand lieutenant Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard, Chelsea Walls, Driven) and beautiful Hero (Kate Beckinsale of Pearl Harbor making her feature film debut). Under the surface, it's love between the rakish confirmed bachelor Benedick (Kenneth Branagh, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Shackleton) and the sharp-witted Beatrice (Emma Thompson of Wit, at the time Mrs. Branagh), both of whom are too cantankerous to admit to themselves or each other what is obvious to everyone around them. And then there's Don Pedro's illegitimate half-brother Don John (Keanu Reeves in the "what the devil is he doing here?" casting move of the century), who's in love mostly with himself.
Being the kind of benevolent prince who enjoys seeing his subjects happy, Don Pedro pulls a few subtle strings designed to see his main man Claudio united in wedded bliss with the fair Hero, while at the same time getting mule-stubborn Benedick and Beatrice to overcome their resistance to the undeniable attraction between them. Determined to hurl a medieval monkey wrench into his brother's plan, the nefarious Don John engineers a ruse that frames Hero as a scarlet woman so Claudio will reject her. But the duplicitous don fails to reckon with the local constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, in a portrayal that can best be described as "Beetlejuice meets Columbo"), who will not rest until he and his greasy minions have ferreted out the truth, foiled Don John's scheme, and restored order to the universe.
In typical Shakespearean style, true love will out, even when death appears to have taken a hand to separate Hero and Claudio forever. Because death, Highness, cannot stop true love…but that's another movie.
Kenneth Branagh's reputation as a Jack-of-all-Shakespearean-trades (here he stars and directs his own screenplay adaptation) is well earned. But after his gritty, blood-sweat-and-tears turn as Henry V, it was hard for audiences to envision how Branagh would handle a comedy, especially this one, which is as freewheeling and lightweight as anything in the First Folio. Amazingly, Branagh proves himself more than equal to the task, bringing a sunny boisterousness to Much Ado About Nothing that is both charming and fresh.
How does he do it? With two key decisions.
First, Branagh throws open the stage, refusing to limit himself and his co-stars to the narrow confines of traditional staging, all the while remaining faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare. Importantly, Branagh doesn't overdo the expansiveness; if you watch carefully, you'll see that the actors within each scene operate for the most part within a relatively small space as though on stage. Branagh doesn't resort to having his characters bounding about the countryside just because it's a movie, and he can. But his effective use of bright outdoor backdrops and open landscapes behind and between scenes—elegantly filmed by frequent Branagh collaborator Roger Lanser—lends a liberating feel to what could have been a stodgy and cramped story.
Second, the director takes the bold step of populating some key roles with non-traditional actors—not merely because these actors are from the Colonies, but because they are as far from the usual Shakespearean construct as is conceivable. (Branagh comments in the accompanying featurette that he has always favored American film actors for their "emotional fearlessness.") Denzel Washington is an electric actor with underrated range, but before this film one hardly would have thought "Shakespeare" in connection with the thoroughly American star of Malcolm X and Glory. People who believed Batman a stretch for Michael Keaton could only shudder at the notion of him mangling Elizabethan English. Robert Sean Leonard, one might suppose, is too fresh-faced and callow for his stalwart man-of-war character. And…Keanu Reeves? (Actually, this wasn't as much of a leap as it first seems—Mr. Wind-Over-the-Mountains had already given credible performances in such Continental period pieces as Dangerous Liaisons and Bram Stoker's Dracula.) But all four assay their parts with aplomb, especially Washington, who's good enough here—despite his choice to read his lines in his natural flat-voweled American accent (which Emma Thompson calls a good thing: "this language works for everybody")—to make one long to see him attempt another of the Bard's heroes. (Hamlet? Marc Antony, perhaps?) If there's a weak link it's Leonard, who appears at times to be channeling a young Steve Martin, but is at other times just fine.
Again, Branagh uses sound restraint by not going overboard with the experimental casting. Brits with abundant experience with this material—Branagh himself, and Emma Thompson—fill the two most important roles in the play, Benedick and Beatrice. Both are delightful: he with giddy, boyish earnestness and a surprising flair for comedy, she with intelligence and an earthy sexuality that is perfect for her character. The supporting cast is filled with such capable English standouts as Branagh regulars Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, and Edward Jewesbury.
The net effect isn't quite "Shakespeare for people who don't like Shakespeare," but it's as close as one could get without doing violence to the original material (does the name Baz Luhrmann ring a bell?). It's Shakespeare, not so much as the Globe Theatre might have presented it in Big Willie Style's day, but as the Bard might have imagined it in his head (or Edward de Vere's head, if you take the Oxfordian view, which this Judge assuredly does not). Branagh packs his film brim-full of such earthy vigor and joie de vivre that even viewers who find the text incomprehensible will be able to follow the action with no trouble at all. Above all, it's great fun instead of great art, which, after all, is what Shakespeare was really about before the academics laid claim to his work and made it seem terrifying and dull to common folk.
This MGM release is Much Ado About Nothing's second appearance on DVD. The earlier Columbia TriStar disc was a supplement-free two-sided affair with an anamorphic presentation on one face and the heartbreak of hack-and-scan on the reverse. Thankfully, MGM has ditched the full screen version in favor of a dual-layer encoding. The resulting transfer is typical of MGM's catalog releases: bright, clean, and sharp (with occasional help from the edge enhancement fairy). The print shows infrequent signs of age, but is quite attractive overall. The color palette is rich and varied, with accurate skin tones most of the time, though they veer a little to the rosy end of the spectrum occasionally.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio presentation, on the other hand, is disappointing—flat, lifeless, and frequently out of dynamic balance. The score is occasionally (and often suddenly) overbearing, although rarely when dialogue is being spoken. Fortunately, the dialogue track is nicely defined and centered, so we don't miss any of the Bard's wonderful words.
MGM also adds to this release a promotional featurette entitled Making Ado About Nothing. Before anyone gets too excited, allow me to note that this piece of fluff, though well produced, is barely more than an overextended trailer at six minutes in length. Its brief running time is given over to interview clips from director/star Branagh and his fellow actors, some of which are sufficiently interesting and insightful that we wish the darn thing hadn't been edited with such economy. Others make us grateful for brevity—this astonishing observation from Keanu Reeves, for example, describing his character in the film: "He is a man who is not content with his lot in life. He is a malcontent." A malcontent is a man who is not content. Thanks for clearing up that mystery, Ted. Party on, dude.
The only other extras are a stylish anamorphic trailer for Much Ado About Nothing and additional trailers for two films you've probably seen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What will it take to disabuse filmmakers of the notion that the only way to present Shakespeare on the silver screen is by bastardizing his work for modern tastes? Even Branagh got sucked into this trap with his miserable Depression-era-musical take on Love's Labour's Lost. Shakespeare is timeless, not because his plotlines can be easily ripped out of their settings and twisted beyond recognition as so many directors (Baz Luhrmann's execrable Romeo + Juliet, Tim Blake Nelson's clunky and awkward teen-angst Othello, O) are wont to do, but because in their original form his plays speak eloquently to the basic elements of the human spirit, as Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing proves. Shakespeare isn't broken, Hollywood—stop trying to fix him.
Sprightly and fun. Much Ado About Nothing is close enough to the original tone and style for purists, yet light and colorful enough for today's audience. Kenneth Branagh and his adept, diverse cast serve up a winner—an accessible introduction to Shakespearean comedy for the uninitiated. Hey, nonny, nonny!
This disc and all parties pertaining thereto are free to go. A misdemeanor count of skimpy extras is dismissed. Any argument against the quality of this film is much ado…oh, never mind.
Court stands in recess.
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• Featurette: Making Ado About Nothing
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