Where tragedies end in deaths, comedies end in weddings, especially where Shakespeare is concerned. In fact, the more, the merrier! We get two in Much Ado About Nothing, which was adapted fabulously for the screen by Kenneth Branagh in 1993. Much Ado, particularly treated by Branagh, is an excellent introduction to the form and style of Shakespearean comedy … the only thing it really lacks is cross-dressing. Still, outside of that particular convention, the rest of the tricks that the Bard usually employs are here: a playful game, mistaken identities, the “romantic” lovers and the less conventional ones, a “villain,” a dramatic turn, some bizarre “rustic” types, and the eventual happy ending.
Don Pedro and his entourage, including young Claudio, rogueish Benedick, and “reformed” villain, Don John (Pedro’s brother) are on their way to Messina to quarter with Leonato. Their arrival is anticipated by Leonato’s household, including his daughter, the lovely young Hero, and her cousin, Beatrice, who is Benedick’s counterpart in wit. You can already see the match-ups happening, right? Claudio and Hero fall in love, while Beatrice and Benedick mock them, until Don Pedro has the idea to trick the two clever people into falling in love with each other, with great success. Of course, however, the course of true love never ran true, and so Don John, sickened by all the happiness and merriment, sets out to upset the party. One of his henchman engages in an amorous encounter, orchestrated to be witnessed by Claudio and Don Pedro, with Hero’s serving woman, whom he calls “Hero” in Claudio’s hearing. Drama ensues, Claudio publicly denounces Hero on their wedding day, Hero’s death is staged, friends become enemies, and it’s all a big mess.
Enter the rustics, Dogberry and his sidekick, Verges. They happen to overhear Don John’s minions boasting of their trick, and take it upon themselves to arrest the gentlemen and turn them over to Leonato. Meanwhile, Claudio is remorseful at the supposed death of Hero, and a plan is derived to have him marry another of Hero’s “cousins,” who will really be Hero herself. In due course, everything is revealed, Don John is revealed as a villain, Beatrice and Benedick’s love is revealed, and Much Ado ends with the requisite weddings and dancing.
In writing all that out, I realize how convoluted and complicated it sounds. But when you’re watching Branagh’s film, you might not care that you don’t quite catch every little twist, because the whole thing is just so lovely. The film is set in the sunny Italian countryside, the cast is handsome, and there’s some great use of color (nearly everyone wears white except for the rustics, who are sort of dusty and grey) to really hit the right mood of joy and playfulness. We are reminded throughout, even when things get serious, that it really is all “much ado about nothing.”
And about that cast: I would call it 99.9% brilliant, but I actually differ slightly from most people in the casting I feel is problematic. We’ll get to that in a minute. Beatrice and Benedick are some of my absolute favorite characters in Shakespeare, and accordingly, Branagh saves them for himself and his (then-) wife, the lovely and absolutely fantastic Emma Thompson. Truly, the two of them have never looked as gorgeous as they do here, and I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere, any time mastering the banter between these two characters any more successfully. The young lovers are played with youthful earnestness by Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard, and they are no less convincing in their sweet innocence. Particularly if all you know of Beckinsale is her inclusion in second-rate action-y flicks, I would recommend watching this film. There are some acting chops there, I promise.
Denzel Washington and Richard Briers are excellent as Don Pedro and Leonato, respectively. And here’s where we get to everyone’s problem with this film: Don John is played by Keanu Reeves. Yep, Theodore “Ted” Logan, doing Shakespeare. And here’s where I differ from popular opinion. I think he does just fine. Don John is a pretty taciturn and sullen fellow, really. While you could play him with scenery-chewing savagery, it’s not really necessary, and so I think that Reeves’ expressionlessness works for him here. The casting that I have a problem with is Dogberry, played by Michael Keaton. Part of the problem could be bigger than Keaton – the Dogberry scenes don’t fit in to the play as a whole as well as, say, the rustic scenes in Midsummer Night’s Dream (which we’ll get to later, I promise), but particularly, Keaton is just sort of manic, mumbly and hard to follow. Every time I watch this movie, I am tempted to fast-forward through his parts. Whatever he’s trying to do with the character, it comes off as less funny and more … slightly off-putting. But don’t let that deter you!!
Seriously, this is a beautiful movie, and the major acting (Branagh/Thompson and Beckinsale/Leonard) is of the highest caliber. I think it’s hard to analyze the comedies through the same lens as the tragedies, because they’re really supposed to be light and fluffy. As complex as we think a Shakespearean comedy is today, it was pretty much the equivalent of a rom-com in Elizabethan times. There could have been some satire going on, maybe certain characters were supposed to evoke certain social stereotypes of the day, but mostly, these plays were just cheap entertainment for the masses. At any rate, I think that Much Ado About Nothing holds up really well, thanks to Mr. Branagh’s excellent treatment, and as an introduction to Shakespearean comedy, you could do a whole lot worse.