© 2004 John Murphy
Much Ado About Nothing was a minor sensation upon its release in 1993. By that time, Kenneth Branagh had come to be regarded as a cinematic Wunderkind, gene-splicing Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. Flush from the success of heavy-hitters like Henry V and Dead Again, the tireless auteur released this sunny show, appropriately enough, in the spring of 1993 and scored another deserved mini-smash. Thankfully, jealous Time and Branagh’s subsequent slip-ups have not dulled its sheen. The movie is a joyous, energetic romp; a happy reminder of Branagh’s unique talent for making a four-hundred year old text seem funnier and more relevant than the latest insipid sitcom or humorless Pauly Shore flick.
The great thing about Branagh is that he is aiming at the same audience who’d enjoy an episode of Friends or the comic misadventures of Bill & Ted. His version of Shakespeare is for everyone, not dusty academics or film snobs. To this end, he rounds out Shakespeare’s script with imaginative bits of physical comedy and some inspired casting. The action clips along nicely, breezing through Shakespeare’s Wodehousian comedy of errors with a welcome sparkle. Drama depends on mistaken identity, double-crosses, and Shakespeare can’t help but throw in a near-tragedy twist on the broad plot, but things arrange themselves neatly by the end, and all get their just desserts.
Okay, so Branagh’s stunt casting isn’t an across-the-board success. Keanu Reeves as a villainous bastard (in both the old and new sense) shows some limitation with the language, but fortunately for us he’s “Not of many words” and does look good grimacing while sporting a “Hello, I’m obviously the Bad Guy” black beard. Denzel Washington, another movie star not typically associated with a classical repertoire, acquits himself with grace and confidence as regal Don Pedro. Why hasn’t he done more Shakespeare since this movie?
Probably the most divisive bit of casting is Michael Keaton as Dogberry, that beloved master of malapropisms. For some, he’s grating and over-the-top. I agree, but that’s why he’s hilarious. His performance seems inspired less by Shakespeare than by the Monty Python troupe, but when the issue is comedy, who’s complaining? Keaton’s Dogberry is an off-kilter lowbrow foil to the witty repartee of Benedick and Beatrice, and the result is some side-splittingly funny moments.
Speaking of Benedick and Beatrice, played by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, respectively, they are the two main reasons to see this show. When they go toe-to-toe, the electricity between them could light up several city blocks. The verbal sparring in the scenes with B. and B. is classic: a merry war of wit in the vein of 1940s screwball comedies, but with better dialogue. Shakespeare’s humor is wise and witty, pithily summarizing topics as universal as Love, Pride, and the like, with a playful nudge & wink. Ken and Em deliver their lines with veterans’ ease and new-kid-on-the-block energy. What a joy to see them here, young and ravishing and perfectly matched. They have the potent chemistry of a timeless on-screen couple, making their initial disdain and eventual love look effortless. I don’t go in much for Hollywood gossip or behind-the-scenes drama, but I have to admit that I was truly saddened by their split as a couple. Whatever the reality, their professional relationship was one for the record books.
Oh well, at least we’ve got this movie for the time capsule. Here Branagh hits just the right tone. “Suit the action to the words, the words to the action,” as Hamlet puts it, and Branagh takes that advice to heart much more in this production than he did, ironically, in his wildly hit-and-miss Hamlet. The sumptuous Tuscan location, bronzed and beautiful cast, lush soundtrack, and sun-dappled cinematography create an atmosphere of bright good cheer well-befitting a story set in the Italian countryside during spring.
Much is owed to Kenneth Branagh for Shakespeare’s recrudescence in recent years. His distinctive energy as an actor and interpreter of the Bard breathed new life into the long dormant genre, and Much Ado About Nothing is a testament to both the Bard’s genius (as palpable in comedy as in tragedy) and Branagh’s contagious enthusiasm. And, more to the point, I love this movie because I knew a girl in high school whose movie list “Top Ten” included The Matrix, Memento, Titanic, Fight Club, and Office Space. Her favorite movie of all time? Much Ado About Nothing.
That’s saying something.
Here’s the gorgeous opening of the film: