Monday, July 7, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Much Ado About NothingSince his Oscar-nominated "Henry V" adaptation, Kenneth Branagh has come up with a simple, effective recipe: Blend 3 parts English actors well-versed in all things "Bard" with 1 or 2 parts Hollywood, sprinkle the mixture liberally over one of Shakespeare's plays, lift the material out of its original temporal and local context to provide an updated meaning, and garnish it by casting yourself and, until the mid-1990s, (then-)wife Emma Thompson in opposite starring roles.

In "Much Ado About Nothing," that formula works to near-perfection. A comedy of errors possibly written in one of the Bard's busiest years (1599) although as usual, dating is a minor guessing game "Much Ado" lives primarily from its timeless characters, making it an ideal object for transformation a la Branagh. Thus, renaissance Sicily becomes 19th century Tuscany (although the location's name, Messina, remains unchanged); and the intrigues centering around the battle of the sexes between Signor Benedick of Padua (Branagh) and Lady Beatrice (Thompson), the niece of Messina's governor Don Leonato (Richard Briers), and their love's labors won initially the play's intended title; Benedick and Beatrice are a more liberated version of the earlier "Love's Labor's Lost"'s Biron and Rosaline as well as the schemes surrounding the play's other couple, Benedick's friend Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Beatrice's cousin Hero (Kate Beckinsale) become a light-hearted counterpoint to the more serious, politically charged intrigues of novels such as Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma:" Indeed, the military campaign from which Benedick and Claudio are returning with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Denzel Washington) at the story's beginning could easily be one associated with Italy's 19th century struggle for nationhood.

While according to the play's conception it is ostensibly the relationship between Hero and Claudio that drives the plot as well as the plotting by Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves) Beatrice and Benedick are the more interesting couple; both sworn enemies of love, they are not kept apart by a scheming villain but by their own conceit, and are brought *together* by a ruse of Don Pedro's (although even that wouldn't have worked against their will: "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably," Benedick tells Beatrice.) And while Don John's machinations create much heartbreak and drama once they have come into fruition, the story's highlights are Benedick's and Beatrice's battles of wits; the sparks flying between them from their first scene to their last: even in front of the chapel, they still although now primarily for their audience's benefit respond to each other's question "Do not you love me?" with "No, no more than reason," and when Benedick finally tells Beatrice he will have her, but only "for pity," she tartly answers, "I would not deny you; but ... I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption" whereupon Benedick, most uncharacteristically, stops her with a kiss.

Branagh's and Thompson's chemistry works to optimum effect here; and while every Kenneth Branagh movie is as much star vehicle for its creator as it is about the project itself, Benedick's conversion from a man determined not to let love "transform [him] into an oyster" into a married man (because after all, "the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor I did not think I should live till I were married"!) is a pure joy to watch. Emma Thompson's Beatrice, similarly, is an incredibly modern, independent young woman; and scenes like her advice to Hero not to blindly follow her father's (Don Leonato's) wishes in marrying but, if necessary, "make another courtesy and say, Father, as it please *me*" only enhance the play's and her character's timeless quality.

Yet, while the leading couple's performances are the movie's shining anchor pieces, there is much to enjoy in the remaining cast as well: Richard Briers's Don Leonato, albeit more English country squire than Italian nobleman, is the kind of doting father that many a daughter would surely wish for; and what he may lack in Italian flavor is more than made up for in Brian Blessed's Don Antonio, Leonato's brother. Kate Beckinsale is a charming, innocent Hero and well-matched with Robert Sean Leonard's Claudio (who after "Dead Poets Society" seemed virtually guaranteed to show up in a Shakespeare adaptation sooner or later); as generally, leaving aside the appropriateness of American accents in a movie like this, the Hollywood contingent acquits itself well. Washington's, Leonard's and Brier's "Cupid" plot particularly is a delight (even if the former might occasionally have gained extra mileage enunciation-wise). Keanu Reeves, cast against stereotype as Don John, is a bit too busy looking sullen to realize the role's full sardonic potential: "melancholy," in Shakespeare's times, after all was a generic term encompassing everything from madness to various saner forms of ill humor; and I wonder what but for the generational difference someone like Sir Ian McKellen might have done with that role. But as a self-described "plain-dealing villain" Reeves is certainly appropriately menacing. Michael Keaton's Dogberry, finally, is partly brother-in-spirit to Beetlejuice, partly simply the eternal stupid officer; the play's boorish comic relief and as such spot-on, delivering his many malaproprisms with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

The cast is rounded out by several actors who might well have demanded larger roles but nevertheless look ideally matched for the parts they play, including Imelda Staunton and Phyllida Law as Hero's gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula, Gerard Horan and Richard Clifford as Don John's associates Borachio and Conrade, and Ben Elton as Dogberry's "neighbor" Verges. (In addition, score composer Patrick Doyle stands in as minstrel Balthazar.) With minimal editing of the play's original language, a set design making full use of the movie's Tuscan setting, and lavish production values overall, this is a feast for the senses and, on the whole, an adaptation of which even the Bard himself, I think, would have approved.

Also recommended:

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition

Love's Labour's Lost

Henry V

William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition)

BBC Shakespeare Comedies DVD Giftbox

BBC Shakespeare Tragedies DVD Giftbox

Olivier's Shakespeare Criterion Collection (Hamlet / Henry V / Richard III)

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Richard III

The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare: 38 Fully-Dramatized Plays

"Much Ado About Nothing" is one of those sparkling adaptations that supposedly couldn't have been done. But Kennneth Branagh (director and star of "Hamlet," and creator of the supremely underrated "Midwinter's Tale") brought an all-star cast in a sparkling Tuscan setting, to bring this tale of bickering loves and sordid betrayals to life as never before.

The sullen Don John has just been stopped in a rebellion against his brother Don Pedro, by young hero Claudio. Now all of them (including Don John, whom his brother has forgiven) are arriving in Messina, the home of kindly Leonato. But when they get there, Claudio immediately falls in love with Leonato's beautiful daughter Hero. And despite the efforts of Don John, Don Pedro manages to get the two young lovers together and altar-bound.

But Don Pedro isn't willing to stop there. Hero's cousin Beatrice has a long-running feud with Claudio's pal Benedick -they insult each other, they bicker, they argue about everything ("It is so indeed -he is no less than a stuffed man!"). What's more, both of them swear to stay single forever. ("All women shall pardon me -I shall live a bachelor!") Pedro and the others conspire to get Benedick and Beatrice to somehow fall in love with each other. And at first it seems that everything is going well -until Don John manages to cast doubt on Hero's honor

There's a certain timeless quality to "Much Ado" -not just the dialogue, but the simple costumes and the buildings in it. That leaves the audience free to pay more attention to the dialogue and its plot. And what a plot it is! "Much Ado" is brimming over with funny dialogue, dastardly plots, comedic supporting characters and weird pairings. (Beatrice and Benedick are the sort of love-hate couple that a lot of movies try to have, but don't succeed with)

The dialogue is mostly (if not all) Shakespeare's own, but it's not necessary to be a Shakespeare buff to understand what they're saying. It's not dumbed down, either -it's just spoken as normally as ordinary English. And the Tuscan landscape sparkles with life, passion, and lots of fruit and wine. You don't need to be a fan already to understand and appreciate this movie.

Kenneth Branagh (who also directed and adapted the play) is amazing as Benedick, lovably witty and egotistical; he gets a little silly at times (such as his bird calls or joyous romp in the fountain), but demonstrates his serious ability after Hero is disgraced. the outstanding Emma Thompson is even better as the sharp-tongued Beatrice, a fiery young woman with her own mind and definitely her own mouth. Thompson lashes out Shakespeare's witty lines as easily as if she just thought them up herself; one of her most powerful scenes is here. Denzel Washington (Don Pedro) looks like he's having a great time; Keanu Reeves (Don John) is a bit flat in places, but glowers well enough. Kate Beckinsale's first movie role (Hero) is suitably sweet and adorable. Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio) is the one weak link in the cast; he seems a bit too overwrought and hysterical to be a major hero. (No pun intended)

This movie was unavailable for a very long time and only recently was rereleased on DVD. The DVD is pretty spare; aside from the movie, there are a few DVD promos (for "When Harry Met Sally" and "The Princess Bride" -both, I notice, comedic romances) and a brief making-of featurette. The featurette doesn't really offer much that is new, but does give some insights into the chosen settings and why the cast wished to do the movie.

Those who enjoyed Branagh's "Hamlet" and "Henry V" will rejoice in "Much Ado About Nothing," the quintessential romantic comedy. Funny, sweet, romantic, and incredibly well-acted, this is a keeper.

Buy Much Ado About Nothing (1993) Now

Yes, Keanu Reeves fits in to this Shakespearean production like a tuba player in a heavy metal band, but don't let that scare you off. His leaden delivery can't weigh down a movie this light and bubbly.

Branagh has outdone himself in this tale of young men and women in love. It is set in the gorgeous Italian countryside, all warm sunshine and bright colors. The actors positively glow with happiness and health.

Branagh plays an almost self-parodying arrogant ham with just the right note of swagger and hidden insecurity. His battles of wit with Emma Thompson's Beatrice bring some of Shakespeare's cleverest writing to vivid life. Denzel Washington makes for a truly regal prince, and Michael Keaton puts in a knee-slapping cameo as the Beetlejuice-ish Dogberry.

This is one of Shakespeare's best comedies and Branagh films it excellently, moving the plot along and keeping things light. The title is apt -the problems the characters face aren't difficult to solve -and Branagh thankfully doesn't take any of the proceedings too seriously.

This is Shakespeare as it was intended to be. It's not actors dressed in tights histrionically shouting lines; it's funny and vibrant with a strong pulse. It's a feel-great movie and not to be missed, by Shakespeare loyalists or by anybody else.

Read Best Reviews of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) Here

This, without a doubt, the funniest film that I have seen Kenneth Branagh do. True, it was no match for his four-hour masterpiece HAMLET, but MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is almost as great. Branagh shows us that his acting abilities can range from heroic to comedic. But please, let us not talk of the very bad performance he gave in the insanely crazy, and just as stupid WILD WILD WEST. Another thing that suprised me about the film: Keanu Reeves as a bad guy. This film also proves that Reeves, who plays the sinister John the B-----d, can play a wide variety of characters (from THE MATRIX's Neo, to BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE's Bill Es Preston Esquire.). The other supporting actors (Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed, among many others) gave what could be called their finest performances ever. The movie, which is insanely funny, also has some dramatic moments, so as not to make it too ludicrous. Anybody who has a thirst for Shakespeare, or just wants a good laugh, should see this movie. Trust me, you'll be singing HEY, NONNY NONNY 'til you die. Grade: A+

Want Much Ado About Nothing (1993) Discount?

If your mind is longing for a Shakespeare production, this is an excellent adaptation of the highest order. Not only is this one of the best romantic comedies ever written, it is set in the Tuscan sun and reaches its full comic potential in all the lustiness and witty dialogue only Shakespeare could create.

At a sensuous picnic, Beatrice reads:

Sigh no more, ladies, sign no more,

Men were deceivers ever,

One foot in sea, and one on shore,

To one thing constant never.

Then sigh not so, but let them go,

And be you blithe and bonny,

Converting all your sounds of woe

Into hey (nonny nonny). (brief translation: what the heck).

Act 2, scene 3, 62-69

In Messina, the governor Leonato, his daughter Hero, and her cousin Beatrice (Antonio's daughter) learn from a messenger that Don Pedro has won victory in a battle and is returning home.

Denzel Washington as the Prince Don Pedro really adds sex appeal to this movie! When he arrives with his soldiers from war there is a moment of excitement when everyone lets their inner child escape and there is a feeling of giddy anticipation and the movie takes on a vigorous life of its own.

This is pure escapism for sure. The Italian villa with lush landscapes, fountains and plenty of shrubs to hide behind for eavesdropping on crucial conversations is just enchanting. It is the perfect place for the story to unfold. Here the prince and his warriors decide to vacation for a month.

The main plot involves two love stories. Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) are in love and hardly need to be pressured into matrimony.

Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) have a hilarious adversarial type courtship in neither can decide what they really want.

"Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably."

They have both declared they will never marry. In fact, one assumes it was their desire of their wild hearts all along, but was only revealed in a tortured path of wit and intrigue.

Claudio: [to Hero] Lady, as you are mine, I am yours; I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange.

Beatrice: Speak, cousin, or (if you cannot) stop his mouth with a kiss, and let not him speak neither.

Don John ("yummy" Keanu Reaves) is of course the evil villan in this story and sets out to destroy the relationship between the beautiful Hero and the handsome Claudio. Like a devil, he manages to create mayhem and then leaves the tortured souls to figure out the details of their salvation. With the sweet Hero slandered and presumed dead, one assumes as sure as there is a thought or a soul, there is no turning back.

There are so many great lines in this play that were included with such flair. This is now my favorite Shakespeare adaptation. You will laugh with absolute delight at the antics these characters get up to!

Universal appeal!

~The Rebecca Review

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