Much Ado About Nothing

For those who don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies funny, this is the film to see, because it’s hilarious. It isn’t just the lines that create laughter, but the manner in which they’re set up and delivered. Expressions and actions often play a large part in the comedy, some of which is decidedly physical. These are the kinds of things that don’t appear on the written page. The film also contains its share of drama, and the pathos and poignancy come as easily and naturally as humor.

The life and vitality of this production are amazing. Things move along with a breezy energy that makes it impossible not to get caught up in the experience. Cuts and edits to the unabridged play are partly responsible for the uptempo pace. However, while Branagh is not entirely faithful to the original text of Much Ado about Nothing, his film takes pains to capture the play’s spirit. Only Shakespearean purists are likely to recongized what has been excised.

As might be expected, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson turn in sparkling performances. To date, neither has done better work. When they are together, the chemistry is apparent. Here, as in Dead Again and Peter’s Friends, it’s a high point. Branagh and Thompson are worthy contemporary rivals of any of the silver screen’s great husband-and-wife couples.

Denzel Washington, not a name one might initially associate with Shakespeare, delivers Don Pedro’s lines with a comfortable ease that might surprise those who associate him only with contemporary films. Keanu Reeves, as Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John, isn’t as bad as one might reasonably expect (given his lackluster track record), principally because he doesn’t have many lines. Robert Sean Leonard’s range is occasionally stretched, as well. Any time he’s supposed to cry, the tears don’t quite come.

Veterans Richard Briers and Brian Blessed, along with newcomer Kate Beckinsale, fill out the supporting roles with typical British flair. Michael Keaton is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser as the over-the-top Constable Dogberry. He’s like something lifted from Monty Python, complete with The Holy Grail’s galloping around on a non-existent horse. Somehow, I don’t think Shakespeare envisioned the character like this.

Much Ado about Nothing is a gem of a movie – a real find in 1993’s sea of mediocrity. Branagh has successfully used a mixed cast of names and unknowns to breathe life into this lavish production, and never has Shakespeare been more warmly received. I’m not sure if feel good has ever been used to describe a picture based on the Bard’s work, but the expression fits. This film cements Branagh’s status as a great director of Shakespeare, and perhaps of film in general, as well.

USA / UK, 1993
Color (Technicolor)

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