Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay By: Kenneth Branagh
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Produced By: Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Evans, David Parfitt
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Keaton, Robert Sean Leonard
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 111 minutes
Review Date: July 30, 2010
When I popped Kenneth Branagh’s seminal Much Ado About Nothing adaptation into my DVD player, I predicted my next two hours panning out as an exercise in patience. Mind you, I happen to love Shakespeare but the scribe has a way with words so profound that it’s often hard to follow when performed. I was worried, therefore, that inclusion of “Olde English” could potentially act as a distraction, withdrawing its viewers from the film. I was pleased to discover quite the contrary. This film is an absolute delight and often approaches perfection and although its jolly nature and pragmatic style keep it from being a masterpiece, I found it impossible to not immerse myself into this wonderful tale.
The story begins on a lush hillside in Messina (shot on location in an extravagantly gorgeous Tuscany) where a lively group of women are reminiscing about love and lost causes. A messenger brings news that a band of soldiers are to arrive from a successful battle, and the local governor, Leonato (Richard Briers), welcomes the men with open arms and insists they stay no shorter than a month. This delights both the soldiers and the illimitable supply of women in the town, and they both frolic to the communal baths to cleanse themselves for the month they are to spend together in each other’s company. Communal bath scenes in films tend to elicit laughs but it works here when taken in the merry context of the narrative. These men are exhausted yet confident from the trifles of battle and the women are in dire need of masculine attention so the scene is stirring in its conveyance of catharsis and excitement.
Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), one of the pampered and youthful soldiers, is smitten when he meets a young local woman named Hero (Kate Beckinsale). As a young man inexperienced with the emotions that accompany love, he seeks guidance from his superior, Don Pedro, the Prince of Arragon (Denzel Washington). Don Pedro encourages him to embrace his heart and imparts the wisdom: for a man to renounce a life of grit and battle in the name of love is just another step in life’s long ladder. This pleases young Claudio at the dismay of Don John (a horrific Keanu Reeves), Don Pedro’s half brother. Don John hatches a plan to keep the two marriage-bound lovebirds apart, and although he exudes the qualities of a man who would never shed his duties even at the slightest inkling of love, his motives are never truly clarified. It could just be his adamant dedication to the craft of war, but why he chooses to prove this at the expense of others (especially a fellow compatriot) is puzzling. I find the fault with writer Branagh who tries a little too hard to simplify the complex Shakespearean tale for the benefit of the audience. Most of the time it works because the story is pleasantly simple to follow, but I still felt as if some of the substance fell by the wayside.
Another of the soldiers is the obstinate yet inquisitive Benedick (writer-director Branagh). He is wholeheartedly opposed to love and women although not as resolutely as Don John. Rather, he believes it to be a waste of time. Hero’s cousin, Beatrice (Emma Thompson), shares the same beliefs as her male counterpart and the verbal sparring that transpires between Benedick and Beatrice shine through as the films strongest moments. The men of Don Pedro’s platoon challenge themselves to bring the two together in matrimony and clue in Beatrice’s family to help facilitate the plan. Their transformation from foes to companions is giddily theatrical and stupendous. This story alone warrants a viewing of the film. It is at this point that the plot truly takes off, but Branagh films at such a breathless pace that the setup is well worth the intriguing and playfully comic narrative.
The film’s ending isn’t as potent as the start (for example, Claudio’s proposal to Hero is breathtaking whereas the marriage seems redundant). The film also suffers from some abrupt shifts in tone. I often found the dramatic impact of the film cut short by the comedy because it so closely followed pivotal scenes. I’m sure that Branagh was only trying to remain faithful to the source material but I feel he could have brought more fluidity to the segues. When Don John’s plan ostensibly fails at the hands of the shrewd Constable Dogberry (a tremendous if overwrought Michael Keaton channeling Beetlejuice), you can’t help but cheer for our beloved characters. It was on this element alone that I realized I loved this film. It isn’t often that I feel excited when the bad guys lose, but this is one of those rare treats that make you smile when things go right. Much Ado About Nothing is only so by title, this film has absolutely everything a moviegoer could want in a film.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.