Magazine article The Christian Century

Much Ado about Nothing

Magazine article The Christian Century

Much Ado about Nothing

Article excerpt

SHAKESPEAREAN films come in three varieties. Most of the BBC productions are plain vanilla yogurt. Solid, nourishing, but bland. The second choice--ice cream, with plenty of syrup--appears most obviously in Franco Zeffirelli's films. His Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Hamlet (1991) present Shakespeare in a palatable modern form, often stripping away complexities and much of the text and assembling beautiful visuals--perfect for Americans who haven't read the text.

But occasionally directors offer a third choice, equivalent to the complex, nuanced balance of sweets and sours in a fine Thai dinner: films that not only preserve the complexity of the Bard's words but also present a distinctive cinematic interpretation. Peter Brook, Orson Welles and Sir Lawrence Olivier come to mind as such gifted chefs. And Kenneth Branagh, hailed by many as Olivier's heir in Shakespearean film, has shown promise of entering the third category with his thoughtful Henry V (1989) and now his rollicking Much Ado About Nothing. A visually inventive director and a talented actor, Branagh would seem to be the bardic interpreter for our times. He may still well be, but his latest effort, entertaining and beautiful as it is, seems closer to Zeffirellian ice cream than to a subtle and nourishing meal. While a delightful film, and one that will surely serve to popularize Shakespeare's work, Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing lives up to its name all too well.

Branagh has explained that he wanted to reduce Much Ado to "a primitive passion where people live in the sun, eat, drink, and have sex." He immediately captures such a vision in the opening moments with the stunning Tuscan landscapes, the fetching Beatrice (played by Emma Thompson, Branagh's wife) entertaining a merry band of picnickers, and the sudden return of the men from war, led by Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, who gallops in as if from the set of The Magnificent Seven. At his Zeffirellian best, Branagh orchestrates a frenetic sequence of women and soldiers stripping, bathing, dressing--lots of flesh, lots of commotion--and finally meeting in two flying wedges. The overhead shot leaves us breathless, the pace excites us, and we know we're in for a Shakespearean film that won't be dull.

Branagh's Benedick and Thompson's Beatrice dominate, as the two reluctant and wit-filled lovers have from the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Thompson especially shows how Beatrice's acerbic jests about love and Benedick's shortcomings may shield vulnerabilities; both actors clearly articulate the beauty and verve of Shakespeare's language, preserving its rhythms and highlighting its humor. Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale), the "lead" characters always relegated to the background by their lesser lines and wit, hold their own but never verge on making us forget Branagh and Thompson. Beckinsale's haunting young face argues that beauty speaks more eloquently than wit, but Branagh's film doesn't solve one of the inherent problems of the play: Hero just doesn't have much to say. Still, the film appropriately, reaches its peak when Claudio, about to wed Hero, violently rejects her, an action prompted by a cruel plot of the villainous Don John (Keanu Reeves). Beckinsale and Leonard rise to the occasion as the turn of the plot threatens the comic perspective.

GIVEN THE violence and ugliness of the wedding scene--to which Branagh gives full value--tlie ending of Much Ado has always been problematic. …

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