Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

#10: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

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Kenneth Branagh is an astoundingly good Shakespearean actor. And with his first Shakespeare film, Henry V (1989), he seemed equally adept as a director.

His Much Ado About Nothing would prove otherwise.

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His casting is a bit deranged, and his directing style with a grab bag of Hollywood stars and English actors seems to be laissez faire, so that many of them seem like they are acting in different movies in the same movie.

Robert Sean Leonard, for example, plays Claudio as if he is supposed to be a hideously bad actor rather than a soldier who has fallen in love.

Let’s put it this way: in Much Ado About Nothing, Keanu Reeves clearly out-acts Denzel Washington.

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Reeves emotes like a by turns thwarted and ecstatic villain, whereas in the early scenes, Washington seems unsure of himself, as if his mouth was a machine for the manufacturing of sounds that might or might not be words.

Denzel gets better as the film goes on, and picks up a slight British accent the more he speaks with the English cast. There is a scene between his Don Pedro and Emma Thompson’s Beatrice that is quite touching.

But so much of the plot hinges on the mawkish Claudio, and Robert Sean Leonard is the Platonic form of Bad Actor here. Presumably he was cast because of his previous role as the sensitive prep school lad with ambitions as an actor in The Dead Poet’s Society (1989). Surrounded by bona fide Shakespearean actors, though, and as a man this time, he looks perpetually awkward by comparison. That he has a douchey surfer’s haircut in Much Ado doesn’t make his performance any more bearable.

I mean it’s so bad.

Leonard isn’t a terrible actor, but one can’t thrust an American actor into a Shakespeare film and expect good results unless the actor has some experience and training with Shakespearean drama.

About 300 words into this review, you’ll get the feeling that I think this movie is bad, and it isn’t. Branagh’s Much Ado is uneven, but there are some fine reasons to watch it.

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Watching him and Emma Thompson trade witty barbs as Benedick and Beatrice is wonderful. When they are tricked into thinking that the other loves them, thus causing them to wonder if they themselves might be in love with the other, it gets even funnier.

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And then there’s Robert Sean Leonard.

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At around the fifty-first minute, I find myself wondering if I can get through this movie in one sitting, and then, Michael Keaton arrives as the night constable Dogberry.

I have seldom seen a man look so greasy. Keaton approaches the role with Beetlejuicean ferocity, and leans into the rough comedy of Shakespeare’s characterization. He mugs before the other actors so much, it’s as if he’s trying to get them to laugh on camera. That he takes the part so far, and the others actors don’t laugh, is one of the best things about Shakespearean comedy ever captured on film. His accent is part Scottish, part demonic cartoon.

There’s an early scene in the movie, when Don Pedro’s men ride in to see Leonato, the governor of Messina. It’s as if the forces of Hollywood are imperiously approaching a land governed by English actors who know their Shakespeare.

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There’s a degree of pomp in this film that I am not comfortable with. The phoniness borders on camp, or perhaps is sometimes campy.

The song Shakespeare wrote for Much Ado, “Sigh No More, Ladies,” is performed three times in the film, once wistfully, once hopefully, and once triumphantly. The singer tells them, “be you blithe and bonny, / Converting all your sounds of woe / Into hey, nonny, nonny.”

Is the song nihilistic, jingoistic, ironic?

What worries me about the pomp in the film is the sense of complacently wealthy white people celebrating how life’s difficulties are but a momentary illusion. This Much Ado About Nothing ends with a breathlessly filmed orgiastic epithalamium, a dancing processional to “Sigh No More, Ladies” sung joyously.

Benedick who is about to marry his Beatrice, tells Don Pedro, “Get thee a wife,” not knowing that Beatrice has turned down Don Pedro’s proposal much earlier in the film. Don Pedro, played by Denzel Washington, disappears at the beginning of the final sequence of “Sigh No More, Ladies.” The camera uses a crane that gives a god’s eye view of the scene, and the scene is bereft of Don Pedro.

Plus Claudio doesn’t deserve his Hero, here played by a rather young, but thoroughly capable Kate Beckinsale.

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If Hero ran away with Dogberry, that would be an ideal ending, satisfying the Aristotelian unities—for this particular version of Much Ado About Nothing anyway.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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