"And Master, sir, do not forget to specify, when time and place shall assert, that I am an ass." - Dogberry
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: William Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh
Principal cast members:
Traditional theater in classical times came in three varieties of play: histories, comedies, and tragedies. As a rule, Shakespeare's works tended to fall into one of these groupings. His histories were generally about as entertaining as a college history class, though there were a couple of exceptions. His tragedies tended to have a high body count and rely on fantastic coincidences. Comedies of that era inevitably relied on mistaken identity and usually characters in drag. In an era when all roles, male and female, were played by male actors, one's mind boggles at the challenge of playing a female versus playing a male in drag.
Fortunately, in modern times, this is not as great a problem and in this particular comedy, it is even less so. There is very little mistaken identity and no cross-dressing in this particular comedy. It is a story with some dark turns and rough edges, but all in all, it is one that translates quite well to modern times. In this case, it benefits from some truly inspired casting decisions (along with one that baffles most critics) and some splendid direction and cinematography.
The story is relatively simple. In the pleasant Italian countryside we find the town of Messina and the estates of one Leonato. Riding into Leonato's estate is a band of victorious soldiers led by the prince, Don Pedro. Chief among his followers are his dark and brooding brother, Don John, a heroic youngster named Claudio, and a wise-cracking friend of Claudio's named Benedick.
Claudio falls in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero, and intends to marry her. However Prince John, apparently cursed with a malevolent streak, arranges for one of his men to seduce Hero's maid. He then arranges for Claudio to see this seduction from such a distance that Claudio is fooled into thinking Hero has betrayed him. In anger, Claudio spurns his bride-to-be.
In the meantime, Hero's close friend, Beatrice, carries on a constant verbal sparring match with the wise-cracking Benedick. The two are actually quite fond of one another and the verbal hostility really doesn't mask it. About the time the two of them realize they are in love is precisely when Claudio breaks up with Hero. All that is left is for Beatrice and Benedick to somehow restore the two lovebirds. This happens with the bumbling help of the play's clown, Dogberry, a local constable who manages to stumble upon Don John's men bragging about their nefarious deeds.
The film captures this insular little community with some gorgeous opening scenes shot with Leonato's household idling in the sunny Tuscan countryside. In the short opening, we get a sense of the general air of leisure and also a good look at Emma Thompson as Beatrice, the razor-witted niece of Leonato whose skill with verbal warfare is every bit as admirable as the rumored skills of Don Pedro's soldiers.
When the news arrives that Don Pedro's company is coming, the entire household erupts into activity and the result is a mass bathing scene unparalleled in cinema history. We witness the household maidens stripping out of their everyday dresses, diving into communal showers and rapidly dressing in their slightly better entertaining clothes. This parallels scenes of the soldiers leaping from horseback and disrobing almost before their feet hit the ground in order to dive into open-air baths. Freshly scrubbed and dressed, the two companies meet at the gate of Leonato's estate and the Prince's company is invited to come in and celebrate their victories.
Richard Briers plays a most engaging host as Leonato and he is a good-humored and congenial friend to the Prince. Denzel Washington is stellar as Don Pedro and you get a sense that Shakespeare is perfectly within the range of Washington's skills, no matter the part. His brother, in contrast, is quite unlike the gracious and formal Don Pedro. Keanu Reeves plays Don John and to say he is miscast is an understatement. Reeves can shine in roles that don't require a lot of emotional depth. But Don John is supposed to simmer. He is a man who is evil for evil's sake. We know not what grudge fuels his malevolence, but that he takes delight in merely hurting others should be obvious. Reeves manages to look brooding and unhappy, but evil is really a bit beyond his range and he never convincingly seems like the kind of man who would destroy a happy romance just for the hell of it.
Fortunately, the other male leads are stunningly good. Robert Sean Leonard is very young, but superb as the shy young suitor, celebrated as a heroic soldier and obviously a bit awkward about accepting that mantle, though relishing in the admiring glances he gets from Leonato's daughter, Hero. At his side is Kenneth Branagh as the vain, obnoxious, and wickedly cynical Benedick. He is as jaded as Claudio is starstruck and the two of them make a wonderful contrast.
Kate Beckinsdale is luminous here in an early role as the object of Claudio's desire. Hero is not a powerful role in this drama as she is clearly overshadowed by Beatrice and as a victim, is decidedly less interesting than those who treat her badly Still, Beckinsdale is very good within that limited visibility.
Of course, the real story and the lion's share of entertainment in Much Ado About Nothing is the interaction between Beatrice and Benedick. Branagh and Thompson are utterly perfect with the bard's scathing interplay. Despite its use of sometimes outdated idioms, the original dialogue still crackles wonderfully in the hands of these two superb actors. It takes us very little time to see how much Beatrice loves having Benedick around even if it is to verbally abuse him. When others in the house dupe Benedick into thinking he is the object of Beatrice's affections, Benedick falls for the ruse with such alacrity, it is obvious he harbors affection for her completely opposite of his protested loathing.
Even as the two comedic leads express their disgust with the sappy, sentimental romance between Hero and Claudio, we see them falling head over heels in love. And just as the wicked machinations of Don John disrupt the romance, Beatrice and Benedick are accepting the fact that they, themselves, are lovers. The irony is shoveled on and in the hands of a lesser cast, it would be cheesy. But Thompson and Branagh are too good to let that happen. Add in Robert Sean Leonard's beautifully painful outrage and the scene where the engagement is cancelled is simply explosive.
The solution, as is often the case in Shakespeare's comedies, is provided by the local fool. In this case, it is a beautifully bizarre constable played by Michael Keaton. Keaton's Dogberry has traces of Beetlejuice dipped in Monty Python but he is a delight to watch on screen as he bumblingly unmasks the evil plot hatched by Don John and reveals it to Leonato and his brother, Antonio. Frequent Branagh collaborator, Brian Blessed, turns in a solid supporting role as Antonio and with Dogberry's information, he and Leonato hatch a counter-plot that will reunite the young lovers while also properly chastising Claudio for being so quick to believe the virtuous Hero was unfaithful.
Of course, there is a proper happy ending in which the evil perpetrators (except for Don John who escapes) are brought to justice and the two happy couples are wed. This is followed by a long, extended follow shot in which the wedding party sings and dances their way through the entire movie set and the full credits.
Much Ado About Nothing suffers slightly from Branagh's somewhat self-indulgent opening and closing scenes. The bathe-in introduction and the ten-minute post wedding frolic are really a bit much. For atmosphere, the sunny scenery and wide shots of the Tuscan countryside really do a superb job without the obligatory celebrations. The meat of the film really comes down to three things. The first is the beautiful drama of the interrupted love story between Hero and Claudio. Beckinsdale and Leonard are wonderfully innocent young lovers and their passionate love as well as their passionate pain make that romance delicious to watch. One other key element is the comic denouement of Don John's evil scheme at the hands of an utter buffoon. And Keaton's twisted fool is certainly entertaining to watch.
Of course, the other romance is the one that occupies most of the film and delights most of our senses. Thompson and Branagh had stunning screen chemistry in their married days and their skill with the dialogue here is just marvelous. Both are adept at conveying vicious delight in scathing words while also suffering deep pain at the thought they might be sincere. That duality comes through in a way that only truly skilled actors under the guidance of a masterful director can produce. It is in the subtlest of reactions between Beatrice and Benedick that we really see Brahagh's directorial skills shine through. Branagh also gives us moments with a folding chair that suggest he may actually have some considerable skill with physical comedy.
Worth mentioning are two other veterans of the Branagh/Thompson clan who turn in fine supporting work. Phyllida Law, Thompson's mother, plays Ursula and Imelda Staunton plays Margaret, Hero's cheating maid.
Despite a few slightly offkey notes, Much Ado About Nothing is a visual treat with some acting performances that positively sizzle. Some of Shakespeare's best dialogue is brought to life here in the hands of some of our generation's finest actors.
Coolness factor: 6
Overall entertainment: 7