William Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing has two main storylines. The first is the love/hate “merry war” relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, who trade insults and injuries and by a series of well-meaning deceptions, are made to fall madly in love with one another. The other major plotline concerns Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, and Benedick’s best friend, Claudio, who ruins his own wedding in spectacular fashion when he announces he has seen Hero with another man at her bedroom window.
To my mind, Much Ado About Nothing (1993) is one of the best film adaptations of a Shakespeare play in existence. As someone who has to teach Much Ado About Nothing to a bunch of fourteen year olds, this is certainly the version that best gets the job done. It’s lighter, brighter and somehow much easier to follow than Joss Whedon’s artsy “Miss, why is it in black and white?” offering, which feels strangely cold to me, despite my love for Whedon’s early, non Marvel works.
Branagh’s version is supremely watchable and repeats well, however overly cheery it may get at times. Shakespeare’s comedic and dramatic style invites a type of melodrama that rarely translates well onto the big screen without seeming embarrassing or overstated, but here it somehow works. Thespian Branagh can indeed be too ‘big’ when in front of film cameras and it feels at points that he is over-egging his comic delivery to the point of annoyance, but we can allow him a little self-indulgence. The whole film is most definitely one of Kenneth Branagh’s babies; he is credited with the screenplay, the direction and he stars as one of the two leads.
While the physical japes and over-complicated word play may not necessarily convert to laugh out loud comedy for today’s audiences, the film does coax a little grin from its viewer throughout – and at times perhaps even a cheeky titter. It’s also one of those films which looked like it was a lot of fun to make but also manages to be fun to watch, especially with so much beautiful Italian scenery to gawp at. Coupled with the sight of a partially bearded Keanu Reeves riding in slow motion on horseback, the film truly is a visual delight. Criticism over Mr Reeve’s poor English accent and stiff delivery be damned – it works for the part.
Much has been made of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson’s real life marriage and divorce, and how this relates to the quarrelling, on-again-off-again dynamic between Benedick and Beatrice. There is a fiery chemistry between them that is more than suitable; and, I believe, I detect a mutual professional respect between the two of them.
There’s also all of the other usual Branagh crew; his Shakespearean regulars Brian Blessed (Antonio) and Richard Briars (Leonato). There’s then the inbreeding of Branagh’s then-wife Thompson and his mother-in-law, Phyllida Law. There are also a host of other familiar faces, few of whom seem to have diminished in fame since 1993, and have actually managed to increase in popularity. There’s British comedy stalwart Imelda Staunton (Margaret), re-emerging star of 2014’s Birdman, Michael Keaton (As Dogberry – you’ve never witnessed Keaton so greasy or, unfortunately, unintelligible, meaning that most of Dogberry’s humorous word-play is lost.) Kate Beckinsale, now of the 2003 Underworld films plays Hero, Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio) who owes continued success to the TV series House, even Keanu Reeves (Don John) and Denziel Washington (Don Pedro) are still going strong. I think Branagh was only able to beat this cast list with his 1996 version of Hamlet, and that’s only because he got Charlton Heston.
The music also deserves a mention. The composer is Patrick Doyle, who also wrote the fantastic soundtrack to Disney/Pixar’s Brave (2012). In my view, this greatest version of Much Ado also manages to contain the best version of the melody for Sigh No More, which although an earworm, is mainly responsible for the frankly joyful feel-good ending of the film. Branagh also uses the lyrics of Sigh No More to frame his interpretation of the play; they are used to bookend the film and reflect the happy-go-lucky, that’s-the-way-the-cookie-crumbles outlook to fickle and fleeting relationships.
Costume designer Phyllis Dalton also does her job well. There is enough symbolism in the masked ball scene to base an entire lesson on! With Don John’s satanic looking red mask with its hooked beak, Beatrice’s cunning cat disguise and Benedick’s grinning fool, it’s not subtle but it is fun.
The whole film is over-dramatic, but this helps to make the thrust of the language easier to follow. Heightened emotions, if pitched well, raise likewise heightened emotions in the audience and help to maintain focus where intricacies of Shakespearean words and plot might lose it.
Sometimes it’s nice to watch a happy movie for a change. If you are trying to learn the play or it you just want your cockles warmed, go forth and watch Much Ado About Nothing. You have nothing to lose accept that grumpy face.