After going increasingly astray with two contemporary outings, Kenneth Branagh returns to the high and, for him, safe ground of Shakespeare with "Much Ado About Nothing," a spirited, winningly acted rendition of one of the Bard's most popular comedies. Pitched to the widest possible audience for a classic through its shrewdly selected Anglo-American cast, clarion-clear enunciation of the witty dialogue and warm-hearted expression of the piece's exalted romantic themes, this rambunctious production should find favor with most viewers disposed to attending a Shakespeare film.

After going increasingly astray with two contemporary outings, Kenneth Branagh returns to the high and, for him, safe ground of Shakespeare with “Much Ado About Nothing,” a spirited, winningly acted rendition of one of the Bard’s most popular comedies. Pitched to the widest possible audience for a classic through its shrewdly selected Anglo-American cast, clarion-clear enunciation of the witty dialogue and warm-hearted expression of the piece’s exalted romantic themes, this rambunctious production should find favor with most viewers disposed to attending a Shakespeare film.

Accessibility was clearly the major concern for Branagh in staging one of the playwright’s more sure-fire works. Director has gone to great lengths to insure that nothing is left unclear, and to make every scene as physical, playful and rollicking as possible.

Result is a film that is continuously enjoyable from its action-filled opening to the dazzling final shot, one that offers a very generous welcome to newcomers to the play, and reminds those familiar with it of its heady pleasures. Only real drawback, and not an insignificant one, is pic’s visual quality, which is unaccountably undistinguished, even ugly, especially considering the sun-drenched Tuscan location.

From the outset, Branagh injects this tale of foolishness, betrayal and transcendent love with an invigorating earthiness. As a group of victorious soldiers returns from war on horseback, the lust between the men and their waiting women becomes palpable as they prepare for the evening’s revelries.

All should be well in the domain of Leonato (Richard Briers): the righteous Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) helps young Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) woo and win Leonato’s lovely daughter Hero (Kate Beckinsale), while the proudly unmarried Benedick (Branagh) and the feisty Beatrice (Emma Thompson) trade taunts and barbs with such zest and skill that they must inevitably become a team.

But the fly in the ointment is the sulky, jealous Don John, who hatches a scheme that convinces Claudio of Hero’s unfaithfulness on the eve of their wedding, resulting in a chain reaction of insults, renunciations, misunderstandings, deceptions and physical assaults that take most of the tale’s second half to resolve.

Playing a major part in setting things right is the eccentric constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton), who, with his ragtag band of deputies, manages to execute justice through the most improbable of means.

Setting most of the action in and around a sprawling hillside villa baked by the heat of summer and passion, Branagh sends the actors spinning through the play’s intricate paces at an almost breathless clip, but with diction so clear that very little of the verbiage will be lost on anyone.

To cement the connection, temperature of the characters’ bodily fluids has been raised to quite a high level, giving the proceedings a lubricious tone that could end up making this “Much Ado” a good date movie.

In the context, it’s a shame that more care was not put into the film’s pictorial quality. Although Branagh’s physical staging is exemplary, the visual approach is strictly utilitarian.

Still, the day is more than carried by the talented thespians and Branagh’s infectious, energetic enthusiasm. Branagh and Thompson bring appealing intelligence and verbal snap to their ongoing sparring.

Looking almost as weird as Beetlejuice, Keaton delivers a very alert, surprising turn as the malapropping constable, reminding in the process that he should never stay away from comedy for too long.

Washington is pleasingly stalwart as Don Pedro, while Robert Sean Leonard is highly capable in the pivotal role of Claudio. For those who might have trembled at the idea of Keanu Reeves playing Shakespeare on the basis of “My Own Private Idaho” and his unconvincing period work in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” his Don John reassuringly announces early on that “I am not of many words.” He ends up keeping his promise, and cuts a dashingly menacing figure.

Richard Briers and Brian Blessed are rock solid as the elders of the community.

It all wraps up in wondrous fashion, as the climactic Steadicam shot dashes across a courtyard, though a house and into a garden before soaring high up above dozens of dancing, cavorting merrymakers to the accompaniment of Patrick Doyle’s movinglycelebrator music.

Much Ado About Nothing

(Period romantic comedy -- British/U.S. -- Color)

Production

A Samuel Goldwyn Co. release of a Renaissance Films production in association with American Playhouse Theatrical Films and BBC Films. Produced by Stephen Evans, David Parfitt, Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Branagh. Adapted by Branagh from the play by William Shakespeare.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Roger Lanser; editor , Andrew Marcus; music, Patrick Doyle; production design, Tim Harvey; art direction, Martin Childs; costume design, Phyllis Dalton; sound (Dolby), David Crozier; assistant director, Chris Newman. Reviewed at Sony Studios screening room, Culver City, April 15, 1993. Competing in Cannes Film Festival. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 min.

With

Benedick ... Kenneth Branagh Dogberry ... Michael Keaton Claudio ... Robert Sean Leonard Don John ... Keanu Reeves Beatrice ... Emma Thompson Don Pedro ... Denzel Washington Leonato ... Richard Briers Hero ... Kate Beckinsale Antonio ... Brian Blessed Conrade ... Richard Clifford Verges ... Ben Elton Borachio ... Gerard Horan Ursula ...Phyllida Law Margaret ... Imelda Staunton Friar Francis ... Jimmy Yuill

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