(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: A military war has just ended, but the “merry war” between Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) rages on! Can their friends trick them into making love instead? For that matter, can another couple’s devotion survive the evil of Don John’s (Keanu Reeves) lies? It’s up to the blundering constable (Michael Keaton) to save the day so that the course of true love may yet run smooth!
– From DVD Production Notes
If I was to summarize Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado About Nothing I’d describe it thus: “It’s this really, really awesome party, then Keanu Reeves tries to ruin it but fails.”
Now don’t misinterpret me. If you think I’m going to jump on the whole “Keanu Reeves was terrible as Don John” bandwagon, you’re wrong. I’m actually referring to the plot, nothing more. And as far as acting goes, Reeves doesn’t annoy me as much as Robert Sean Leonard does.
The first time I saw this I was a kid. It was at the Varsity Theater in BYU’s Wilkinson Center (and yes, it was edited; and yes, Mormons even edit Shakespeare). I absolutely loved it although I didn’t completely grasp the language. In fact, it’s the first film I remember wanting to live in.
This isn’t hard to understand. It was shot in Tuscany, and yes- Much Ado is mostly a never ending party. Everyone appears to be having a blast, from the master of the house to lowliest of servants. In fact, the film ends on a note where it seems they will party and party and party forever. Andrew W.K. probably loved it.
However, what I loved about the film was Benedick and Beatrice, and particularly how Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson- who were married at the time- played off of each other. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt this way, and their sparring is the centerpiece of the action.
In fact, this film led me to an important discovery: I prefer watching smart couples who are at odds. It’s much funnier and more entertaining. This probably explains why I like It Happened One Night (1934) and When Harry Met Sally… (1989), which are pretty much the only romantic comedies I can stand.
But this? Well, this is pretty much as good as it gets. It’s Shakespeare. Every line is an excellent line.
I was particularly struck by Beatrice. Although I was very young I understood her, and along with Les Misérables‘s Éponine Thénardier and Dracula‘s Lucy Westenra she was one of the first literary characters I identified with. She is also given some beautiful things to say. Her line: “I was born to speak all mirth and no matter” might as well end up on my headstone.
Benedick is just as entertaining. In this version he’s a clown of the highest order and the least serious I’ve seen Kenneth Branagh. Ever. In trying to find material for this post all I could find was Branagh acting like a buffoon because he was so good at it.
It’s true. Serious Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh is hilarious in this. I mean, does he go kicking around in a fountain when he realizes he’s in love?
And it’s beautiful. If more men went around joyfully kicking in fountains the world would be a happier place.
Of course, Much Ado doesn’t simply belong to Branagh and Thompson. The supporting cast does more than fill in the lines. In fact, there are too many people to single out, but needless to say, the legendary Brian Blessed (as Antonio) and Michael Keaton are my personal favorites. Richard Briers is pretty amazing too. The film also features Imelda Staunton in one of the best reaction shots of all time.
There were some risks taken in Branagh’s casting and most would point to Reeves as Don John. Nevertheless I’ve always enjoyed Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro. Keep in mind that he went from shooting Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) to this:
Personally, I love that contrast.
Unfortunately Much Ado isn’t all parties, falling in love and irrepressible joy (still, I’m pretty sure a supercut of all the laughing, hugging and bro slaps would be pretty long). Some of the characters act like total idiots, making important decisions at the drop of a hat and without a second thought. I found myself calling it “hairpin turn decision making.” The heart rules the head, with mixed- and sometimes tragic- results.
This is the only area of the film that is disturbing, but mainly from a contemporary point of view. The film remains true to its time period and there are aspects of the story that are blatantly sexist. Men behave intolerably and the women have to pay for it, no questions asked. In several instances they are bargaining chips. Despite this Much Ado remains a popular play (after all, it has just been adapted by Joss Whedon), but I think it’s because the Beatrice-Benedick subplot cancels most of this out.
Apparently the internet (and fellow Shakespeare fans) agree:
If anything, these two are a couple on equal footing, and their interactions are 10x more entertaining than their context.
And did I mention that the context is just this giant party party? And of course, a party party like this is going to end well.
The fun is the journey it takes to get to said ending, as well as all of the writing and performances, packing quite a punch. It’s not a bad destination, because that’s the way it should end, right?
This makes Much Ado About Nothing more than entertainment, at least for me. It’s a bright spot, a retreat, and now twenty years old this year. It’s becoming nostalgic.