Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, Robert Sean Leonard, Kate Beckinsale, and Keanu Reeves.
As the name suggestions, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is a confection: it is light, it is fluffy, it is happy, and it is not at all serious. No one doubts a happy ending and no one fears for the worst, and along the way there are plenty of laughs and even more smiles. The embarrassing lesson learned by its protagonists is to not take themselves so seriously and to not be so absolutely convinced they are always in the right. Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation is as light as a feather, its pace is buoyant, its visuals are sunny, and its performances are splendid.
Italy is at its sunniest when Don Pedro (a regal Denzel Washington) and his soldiers return from the fighting. Fighting whom? It doesn’t matter, they are like a flock of birds answering to the season, and now is the time to shake their antlers, spread their tails, and find love. All except Benedick (Branagh), who would much rather bicker with Beatrice (Emma Thompson), and in Shakespeare we know what that really means. There’s also Don Pedro’s evil half-brother Don John (Keanu Reeves, all but twirling a long mustache, while clenching his fist and chewing up words like “thwart”). He must be up to something diabolical by the way he holds himself apart during the festivities and stalks the drafty Italian corridors.
Don John wants to thwart (said chewingly) the impending wedding between young Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard, whom Benedick refers to as “Lord Lackbeard”) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale, whom Benedick provides the opinion of “methinks she is short”), with rumors of her infidelity. John is jealous of the friendship between Claudio and his brother. More than hurting Claudio and Hero, John wants to hurt Don Pedro via this deception, although there are hints of his failed attempts to woo Hero. Meanwhile, Don Pedro and Claudio decide to trick Beatrice and Benedick into thinking they are in love. The scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick bicker are almost as funny as the scenes in which they try to get along. The two schemes become entangled, and it’s up to the local lawman (Michael Keaton, in a stroke of casting genius) to use his drunken flatulence and imaginary horse to unravel everything.
Various subtexts along the way give extra depth to the characters. The men are all back from the fight, and we feel they are entitled to frolicking innocuously. Before Don Pedro hatches his scheme to couple Beatrice and Benedick, he attempts to court Beatrice himself but is sweetly, apologetically rejected, giving an interesting, unspoken motivation for his schemes. Branagh and Thompson, as Beatrice and Benedick, are portrayed as older, wiser, and more callous than one might expect, but still foolish when it comes to matters of the heart, and their patience and articulateness is an interesting counterpoint to the puppy-love of Claudio and Hero.
Thompson and Branagh are as delightful as ever when engaged in their verbal sparring—sort of like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in a different cosmos—but some audiences and critics are bothered by the casting of Reeves, Keaton, and Washington. I enjoyed all three performances. Reeves does what is needed as the villain, which is to look menacing, behave a little over-the-top, and to clench his fist while using words like “thwart.” I suspect many of his detractors simply dislike stars of low comedy and action trying their hands at Shakespeare. Keaton’s bizarre and manic comic relief is sort of like Jim Carrey in iambic pentameter. He has monologues that make almost no sense and serious hygiene problems; I confess he is a matter of taste, but I for one enjoyed his lunacy more than any Jim Carrey movie I’ve yet seen. As for Washington, he doesn’t really look Italian, but if Shakespeare wasn’t interested in historical accuracy, why should we? Human truths were what the Bard was after, and at that Washington is beyond reproach.
All this takes place at an Italian villa of stunning serenity, where the festivities at the arrival of Don Pedro never seem to end. There is a banquet and a dance, and there is much time to listen to sad songs by the fountain, and sit amidst the trees. The atmosphere of "Much Ado" is a gathering of friends, who all love each other deeply, who love to hear and see one another, who want to laugh, drink, and be merry in one another’s company, who flirt but are not depraved. The film’s sunniness is effective to the point of being infectious. Patrick Doyle, Branagh’s frequent musical collaborator, turns a sonnet or two of Shakespeare’s to song, and cinematographer Roger Lanser fills the screen with the rich colors of springtime. This is possibly the best of all Branagh’s films, directed no less than joyously, and one of the loveliest movies of the 1990s.
Copyright (c) 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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