WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: A group of war-weary soldiers rests at the Messina home of Signior Leonato and the eye of young Claudio is taken by Leonato’s daughter Hero. As Claudio resolves to wed Hero traps are set to make Benedick fall in love with his old verbal sparring partner Benedick; but the machinations of Don John soon throw young lives into turmoil, and help comes from a very unlikely source.
Personally, I love the bloke, but I do have sympathy for the millions of English students who must have read Shakespeare plays in dusty classrooms and wondered what on Earth they were about. For such people film treatments must come as a blessing, and over the years few have worked so tirelessly as Kenneth Branagh at bringing the Bard’s work to the screen. In this particular instance, he has also made a fine-looking movie.
The party of Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) seeks rest and relaxation at Leonato’s (Richard Briers) villa at Messina, a sunny idyll eager for the group’s return. Pedro has friends Benedick (Branagh) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) for company, and also his brooding bastard brother Don John (Keanu Reeves), who is determined to prove a villain (wrong play, I know) by spoiling the happiness of Claudio at any cost.
When John fails to convince Claudio that Pedro has wooed Leonato’s lovely daughter Hero (Kate Beckinsale) for himself rather than his kinsman, he devises a fallback plan with burly co-conspirator Borachio (Gerard Horan): by using and abusing Hero’s maid Margaret (Imelda Staunton), Borachio makes both Claudio and Pedro believe that Hero is wanton, causing the young soldier to reject her at the altar, much to Leonato’s fury and distress. This treachery ruins the japes the party were having at the expense of confirmed bachelor Benedick and Leonato’s sharp-tongued niece Beatrice (Emma Thompson), who were being guided to fall in love with one another.
Beatrice earnestly charges Benedick with killing Claudio in revenge for his accusations; but fate intervenes when Borachio unwisely shoots off his mouth in front of the night watch, bringing his calumny to the attention of eccentric Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton) and his sidekick Verges (Ben Elton). If the crimes can be brought to light, Claudio – believing Hero to have died from her grief at being falsely accused – may be miraculously disabused. As for Benedick and Beatrice, it seems nothing can knock their heads together – except perhaps a little poetry.
The first thing that should be said is that Much Ado About Nothing looks absolutely glorious. The perfect Tuscan location – with the sunshine that naturally accompanies it – and simple, effective costumes lend the film a wonderful glow, and the action is played out in a free and natural manner that banishes all thoughts of the material originating on the stage (emphasised by the superb, giddy tracking shot at the end of the film). In this radiant setting Shakespeare’s story is played out with gusto by talented thesps such as Brian Blessed and especially Richard Briers as the perturbed father; Washington is an affable presence as Don Pedro, Keanu sulks with aplomb, and a young Beckinsale is lovely and affecting.
But this is really Ken and Em’s film, Branagh investing Benedick with a very funny (if squeaky) streak of indignation and Thompson filling the outwardly scornful Beatrice with worldly sadness. Their skill in making the sub-plot the heart and soul of the film matches Shakespeare’s in weaving the two tales together, and they conspire to make the Bard’s jokes genuinely amusing, when to be honest (and unsurprisingly for 400-year-old material) ‘getting’ Shakespeare comedies often means consulting notes to understand why the lines are (or were) funny; that said, the ‘civil as an orange’ pun will always be a groaner.
What doesn’t need pointing out is the innate drama of the piece, which totters on the edge of tragedy for long periods before the super-happy resolution. The conclusion actually ties up all the loose ends a bit too neatly, with Borachio all too readily spilling his guts, but this is very much in the tradition of Shakespearean resolutions and it works nicely here, with a dance that reminds us how well music is sprinkled into the film.
What doesn’t work so nicely is Keaton’s quirky performance as Dogberry, all pretend horse-riding, exaggerated violence and grimy obsequiousness. It’s admirable that Keaton does his own thing with the text and doesn’t simply emulate the Shakespearean actors around him, but his chosen accent is often unintelligible, and there’s little point in playing around with jokes if you can’t hear what they are. Possibly he felt the jokes weren’t up to much, in which case he should have done a different film (it feels like he’s from a completely different film, in fact).
Keaton’s scenes aren’t awful but I do wince rather than laugh whenever he’s on screen, and neither Ben Elton nor the watchmen – tasked to perform a strange Three Stooges-style salute – bring the performances in line with the rest of the cast. Less jarring but also iffy is Robert Sean Leonard, who appears to equate Shakespearean acting with overacting and pulls some very odd faces as a result, at other times reverting to a callow and colourless figure. Still, like Washington and Reeves he doesn’t let his American accent become an issue – if only they’d had a word with Michael.
It would be a stretch to call Much Ado About Nothing a romantic comedy since its conventions and language are several centuries old and, despite Branagh and Thompson’s gallant efforts, bear the indelible marks of the era. It is however bright, funny in a good way (Keaton aside) and tells a lovely story that quibbles on the nature of love and forgiveness. For those who can tune in to the language, Much Ado About Nothing is much more than an academic exercise; it’s appealing, involving, and a warm treat for the senses.