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After a meteoric career on the stage, Kenneth Branagh made his directing debut with William Shakespeare's Henry V, and he immediately became a name to be reckoned with. He's a shrewd fellow, with genuine talent and an ability to carve his own niche in the cutthroat world of Hollywood movies. Long after black-and-white movies were considered anathema, Branagh made Dead Again, a sly tribute to Orson Welles, Hitchcock and the "film noir" movies of the 1940s, and again he scored a box-office hit. He's one of those "auteurs" who's determined to buck the system and get the movies made that HE wants to make, without being reduced to silly brainless Hollywood pablum. His next film, Peter's Friends, was a failure at the box office (and critics didn't like it either), but it was an ambitious attempt nonetheless.
And now Kenneth Branagh has made a Hollywood romantic comedy with a big-name cast; what's more, he's released this movie during the summer, which is traditionally the time when the mindless, one-dimensional Hollywood mega-budget blockbuster wannabes are duking it out for moviegoers' dollars. Who else but Branagh would have the nerve (and the ego?) to film Shakespeare as a summer movie?
And that's what we get with Branagh's return to the Bard: Much Ado About Nothing. When he made Henry V, Branagh cast his friends from the British stage, because they had great talent--but they were virtually unknown to mainstream American audiences. This movie has clearly been filmed with the box office in mind. He's taken an all-star cast-- Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Emma Thompson (who won the Best Actress Oscar for Howards End--and who happens to be his wife), and Branagh himself. What's more, he's chosen one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies instead of a drama or a tragedy--a move, I'm sure, made to ease the worries of the Corporate Bigwigs who would normally shrink at the thought of foisting Shakespeare--the name sends chills down the spines of high school students across America-- upon unsuspecting moviegoing audiences.
Much Ado About Nothing seems tailor-made for Hollywood summer entertainment: it has a simple plot, laughs galore, a happy ending, and you have no question who the good guys and the bad guys are. What's more, it includes a healthy dose of sex, and Branagh makes this clear by including a shower scene during the opening credits, as we see literally dozens of naked bodies frolicking across the screen in an effort to get washed washed up so that they can greet the returning war heroes. Sex plays a major role in this film: all of the women wear loose-fitting, low-cut dresses that look more like nightgowns than dresses, and the men wear billowing, loose-fitting shirts and skintight trousers that show off their manly physiques. You can be sure that none of this was allowed on the live stages of Europe--but today's audiences won't mind it at all.
And yet, despite being tailor-made for summer audiences, Branagh has made a film that will surely appeal to all audiences, be they Shakespeare aficionados or not. There's no denying that this is a high-spirited, zestful comedy that will stand head and shoulders above the silly high-concept "comedies" being turned out by the major studios.
The simple plot may appeal to the Hollywood studios, but this particular play is one of the Bard's most well-known and beloved for a good reason: it's as funny as anything you're likely to see on the screen this year.
The cast is well-chosen, and each actor fits his role admirably. Branagh himself knows that the best way to appeal to an audience is to make fun of yourself, and he does so by playing the role of Benedick, the determined bachelor who will have nothing to do with marriage and who delights in trading barbs with the equally headstrong Beatrice (played by Emma Thompson). Their being husband and wife serves them well, for they mesh with a chemistry that leaves you with little doubt that these are two people who could easily love each other, if they would only come down off of their high horses and give in just a little bit. The wit of their wordplay is rapier-sharp, and they're obviously having a ball in these roles.
But the war between Benedick and Beatrice is not the main story: rather, it's another tale of True Love, straight out of The Princess Bride. (Or rather, The Princess Bride obviously borrowed it from here!)
Robert Sean Leonard is Claudio, the headstrong, love-smitten young romantic who falls head-over-heels in love with Beatrice's lovely young cousin Hero (played by the ravishing Kate Beckinsale). This young couple look as though they came straight from John Hughes' teen-angst comedies, but they play their roles well. Their dialogue sounds natural, and even Claudio's temper tantrums are well-played. Since Mr. Leonard landed this role after playing in lesser Hollywood films (he met Branagh on the set of Swing Kids, and subsequently landed the role of Claudio), he must have had a tough time standing up against the likes of Denzel Washington and Brian Blessed (the grand British actor who's probably best-known for playing Augustus in I, CLAUDIUS), but if he had any trouble with his role then it certainly doesn't show here.
Denzel Washington is having an equally grand time as Don Pedro, the lord and leader who delights in conspiracy: the subtle plots and counter-plots that take place are largely his doing. But it's all for the good, as Don Pedro wants nothing more than to make his subjects happy. He's always smiling and laughing, and it's infectious.
And there's Keanu Reeves, who plays the conniving, covetous Don John. You know he's the bad guy because he's the only one in the entire film who never smiles; what's more, he declares early on that "I am a villain" and that he will stop at nothing to destroy the match-made-in-heaven of Claudio and Hero. For those who worry about Keanu Reeves playing Shakespeare after his roles in My Own Private Idaho and Bram Stoker's Dracula, I can tell you that you have nothing to worry about. Reeves' scenes are brief, and he lets us know that "I am a man of little words." However, we're never sure why he wants to play the villain--a flaw that is never completely covered up. He's there, and he sneers a lot, but little more.
Michael Keaton appears too, as the swaggering Dogberry. He plays the traditional Shakespearean fool well, though we never lose the impression that we're watching BEETLEJUICE all over again when he appears. Shakespeare knew he was spoofing himself when he devised this character, I think, because his nearly incomprehensible speech confuses the other characters in the film as much as it does the audience.
So, despite the way the film has been carefully crafted to appeal to summer audiences, does Much Ado About Nothing satisfy? Indeed it does. The characters mesh together well, and the entire movie moves at a fast, brisk pace that gives us a healthy, earthy feeling of energy and vigor. Everyone is smiling and laughing (except the villain), and nowhere does it feel that this mirth is forced. You can tell that the cast had a lot of fun making this movie, and this enjoyable spirit carries over to the final print. It's also hilariously funny. It takes a while for an audience raised on high-concept action flicks to get used to Shakespeare's flowing dialogue, but after about fifteen minutes our ears have been attuned and we're laughing heartily, both with the cast and at them. This free and easy approach makes the film far more enjoyable than Franco Zeffirelli's HAMLET (which starred Mel Gibson); it seems far less staged and forced than that production did.
Kenneth Branagh seems determined to acquaint his audience with the classics, whether they like it or not. If his future works are as well-done as Much Ado About Nothing, then he'll have a long and rich career ahead of him. He's out to buck the system, and fortunately for him the Hollywood studio heads are just stupid enough to miss the fact that he's thumbing his nose at them. I wish him well. Much Ado About Nothing is definitely one of the best movies I've seen so far in 1993-- and if the rest of the summer is as disappointing as I think it's going to be, it may well be one of the best movies of the year.